Saturday, June 14, 2014

SHELTER:  Post Nuclear Opera

Do you ever go see a show and walk out thinking:  "that was really interesting and very well done, but I'm not sure what the hell just happened?"

That was me last night at SHELTER, the latest production from TAPESTRY NEW OPERA in co-production with EDMONTON OPERA.

The show is gorgeous and fascinating to look at, thanks to a dream design team of  Sue LePage (scenery and costumes) Robert Thomson (lighting) and Ben Chaisson with Beth Kates (video).  A huge round screen fills the sky above the stage, floating a series of thought-provoking and beautiful images above the playing area which is surrounded by a tiny fence comprised of drawings of bungalows.

We are in post-nuclear America somewhere and a geeky, repressed guy Thomas (well-sung and well-performed by Andrew Love)  meets meets the out-going Claire, (Christine Duncan whose acting is as good as her fine singing)  and they quickly marry and have a little girl, Hope (the beautifully voiced and emotionally compelling Teiya Kasahara).  Hope is born damaged, emanating a eerie glow.  Her parents keep her inside and home school her.

At the same time as this disturbed domestic enclave is being established, physicist, Lise Meitner (an excellent Andrea Ludwig) is fleeing Germany (the real Meitner was Jewish but spent the war in exile in Sweden) and avoiding being signed up for the Manhattan Project which was responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb.

SHELTER plays fast and loose with historic time-lines and history.  It's OK:  you can suspend your disbelief.  Meitner ends up as Hope's governess in America.

One day, a handsome pilot appears out of the sky with a Geiger counter (Keith Klassen who plays the role with great bravado) that leads him to Hope.  Does he love her?  Or does he want to take her away for some more nefarious military purpose?

The six-piece orchestra does a fine job with the score. The staging by director Keith Turnbull and movement coach, Jo Leslie is very well-done. I found the piece beautiful to look and listen to. The performances were all fine.

Librettist Julie Salverson says in her program notes that the show was developed in part using red-nose clown.  I could certainly see that, especially in the characters of Claire, Thomas and Hope.

In spite of its many virtues, SHELTER struggles due to an uneven tone textually and in performance, which, coupled with a certain amount of narrative murkiness, pulled me out of the story intermittently and kept me from liking this as much as I would have liked to. A few more clean decisions would have taken this from good to great.

SHELTER is certainly interesting and well worth seeing.  Expect a great looking and sounding show with very good performances.  Just don't expect great narrative clarity.

Shelter plays at Berkely Street Theatre Downstairs, 26 Berkeley Street until June 14th.

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