Theatre Review: ‘Red Giant’ by Rhymes with Opera
Ever heard of a sci-fi opera? Me neither. The possibility of these opposite-world genres coexisting came to life at the Barrow Street Mansion this past Sunday (1/19) thanks to the brilliant minds behind Rhymes with Opera. RWO is a non-profit Baltimore and New York City based contemporary music and opera ensemble who combined these categories in a story called “Red Giant.” The drama captures a day in the life of three characters on board a claustrophobic space ship years after their planet has exploded in a fiery doom.
“Red Giant,” performed in an intimate setting with few stage props, opened with the world premiere of Baltimore composer Erik Spangler’s “Damascus Mix.” Soprano Bonnie Lander was the soloist and an all-out one woman show. Lander began by recording herself making guttural sounds with her mixer and iPhone. Lander then introduced these recorded sounds to a larger cut-up of international news reports. While it was difficult to make out specific words or phrases, the intention was clear.
The journey of the music quickly picked up its pace and the pressure built leaving the audience completely transformed. New cut-ups flowed into intergalactic shooting stars that transformed into a hip-hop beat and then an EDM (Electric Dance Music) beat, all while Lander’s operatic notes floated through. The room was overwhelmed with sound and listeners seemed to float along in space with her.
The lights dimmed, preparing for a wild experience within a one-act play. The production opened with three characters, one man and two women, dressed in what looked like futuristic potato sacks, sleeping. They immediately debated whether to turn the lights on, and viewers quickly got the sense that this question was a part of their daily struggle. The man (baritone Rober Maril) fought against Lander’s character to keep the lights off for fear that the seemingly sicker, more fragile third character might be disturbed by it, “Why turn the light on if there’s nothing to see?”
The possibilities were as vast as the outer space they were in. Alliances and characters become clearly defined – there’s Mr. Headstrong (Maril), Ms. Fragile (Elisabeth Halliday) and Ms. Realist (Lander). Ms. Fragile seems to put all her hopes in the other two getting along like a young child clenching a pillow hoping her parents don’t divorce. All her energy lies in their unity. Mr. Headstrong is optimistic that as long as he’s in command, things should be ok. Later on however, he admits that he dreams of walking out of the spaceship and drifting in the vast darkness alone. Ms. Reality tries to keep everyone in check and focused about exactly what has and is occurring.
At one point, Lander’s character sneaks out a book from underneath piping and spaceship pieces and is subsequently begged to read a story by the life-starved Ms. Fragile. It is then that the story unfolds about how they wound up in darkness, how they drank every night and how they thought they’d be the last to merrily survive on their planet. A deep sadness grows.
In this type of intimate space, the audience could almost touch the actors without even fully reaching. Despite this, however, none of the actors broke character. The acting, particularly by Lander, was phenomenal. She connected on a deep personal level with “Red Giant.”
Towards the end, there was a chilling, goose bumps-inducing scene in which a radio signal comes in. As static interrupts the conversation, enthusiasm rises as the characters (and the audience) long for good news. Soon enough, however, a news anchor becomes audible and the mood plummets. They’ve heard this before. The anchor signs off, thanking everyone for listening. They all go back to sleep and “Red Giant” ends.
Overall, the story begs the question about hope and its capacity to survive against uncertainty. It’s the show’s music, however, that kept it engaging. The live seven-piece orchestra, albeit small, produced a sound that could have filled the entire block, and the score could easily be mistook for the soundtrack of an indie bohemian Star Wars.
For more information on Rhymes with Opera, check out their website at rhymeswithopera.org.
Photo by Jessica Maiuro