A one-woman show makes room for two

Monologue: Theater group presents two versions of the same story - one spoken, another sung.

1-woman show makes room for 2

January 30, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Valerie Lash will have a small, raised platform on which to create a whole world and only herself, a chair, a phone and a book with which to make the scene come alive as she performs The Italian Lesson with Rep Stage over the next three weekends.

After an intermission, Deborah Kent will use the same confined space and props to re-create the same slice of life, but she will be singing with the accompaniment of an 11-piece chamber orchestra.

The monologue and opera performances of Ruth Draper's one-woman show are part of Rep Stage's The Italian Lesson and Other Divertissements, an "eclectic salon performance" starting tomorrow and running through Feb. 16 at Howard Community College.

The pieces will be preceded by a piano duet of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, performed by Kristina Suter and Lisa Rehwoldt, Friday through Sunday and Feb. 7 to Feb 9. Wei Der-Huang and Hsien-Ann Meng will perform the weekend of Feb. 14.

In The Italian Lesson, Lash performs a monologue as a New York matron trying to learn Italian with a tutor while planning dinner, gossiping with friends, watching over her children, getting a manicure and otherwise being distracted by her busy life.

To perform the piece, an actress "evokes 12 people and the dog," Lash said. But she portrays only one character, using her reactions and expressions to indicate the others.

"It is a wonderful sort of magical move into the imagination," said director Jackson Phippin, an adjunct faculty member at Howard Community College and former associate artistic director of Center Stage.

Then, with the opera, "you get to see how another artist re-imagines the piece through music," Phippin said. "It creates a wonderful kind of counterpoint."

Lash (formerly Costantini) is artistic director of Rep Stage and chairwoman of the HCC Arts and Humanities Division. She said she fell in love with The Italian Lesson and explored the idea of performing it for more than a year before launching the current production.

Draper, who started performing her monologues in salons and private homes in the early 1900s, wrote The Italian Lesson in 1926 and presented it many times over 30 years. She earned lavish praise from prominent writers, actors and critics as she became an international touring star. She is often referred to as the mother of the monologue format.

As Lash compiled research on the artist and the piece, she said, she was excited to discover an opera by Lee Hoiby using the same script.

Music director Patricia McKewen Amato, choral director at Hood College and a faculty member at Peabody Institute in Baltimore, was familiar with the opera, having been part of a production with the Baltimore Opera.

The musical motifs that appear with individual characters captured McKewen Amato's interest.

Throughout the piece, "Hoiby paints really vivid pictures of [the characters] in the accompaniment," she said.

The monologue is about 95 percent intact in the opera, said Kent, who is director of music at HCC. "What you hear from Valerie, you hear from me. It moves very quickly."

At the same time, Lash said, "It's going to be different as the art forms are different. ... We're not trying to do it exactly the same."

Among those differences, Phippin said, is that in musical works the composers make a lot of decisions for the performer, while in drama the actor and director have more control.

Also, "it's very different in the feel of it," Phippin said, because the person speaking her dialogue is inherently more realistic, while the singer is more of a representation of the character.

But Kent will work to include as much detail as she can. "One thing I'm trying to do is keep it all very conversational, even the more aria parts."

The one-woman format offers other technical and artistic challenges, starting with the memorization and stamina required to execute the parts.

"The artist is trying to take what really is two or three plays' worth ... of material and get it under control," Phippin said.

"I never get a rest," Kent said.

Usually a singer is on stage alone no more than five or 10 minutes during an opera, she said, but in this 30-minute piece, "I rarely have more than three or four seconds of a break."

Once the women got a handle on their respective parts, Phippin said, the next step was to ask questions about the characters and the world they inhabit.

In single-performer pieces, "you are creating everything through yourself," Phippin said. "You are the primary energy on the stage, and you have to be responsible for creating the other energies on the stage."

One benefit of doing the pieces together may be an opportunity to introduce new audiences to opera. Lash said she hopes fans of Rep Stage "will enjoy something they might not have necessarily sought out."

Most important, however, is that audiences enjoy the show.

The main character is "the universal busy lady who's in control and yet not really," Kent said. In her, "I think everyone will see somebody they know."

Rep Stage presents "The Italian Lesson and Other Divertissements" at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays (with no matinee Feb. 1) and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays in Howard Community College's Theatre Outback, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets range from $13 to $22. Reservations: 410-772-4900.

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