Arts and Entertainment | Theater

YIR 2013-14: Campus theater sees new collaborations, stirs controversy

  • nijo reaction | Fiona Brunner, BC ’14, played Lady Nijo in a fall production of “Top Girls,” a casting decision that ignited controversy.
  • Kimberly Flores / Senior Staff Photographer
    round and round | Cast members of CMTS’s production of “Carousel” rehearse in November.
  • Suxin Shen for Spectator
    i’ll be bach | Columbia’s Bach Society was behind the March production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”
  • form and feature | India Choquette, BC ’14, starred in “Blown Youth,” which was written as part of a collaboration between New Georges and the Barnard theater department.

Each year, it seems that Columbia’s thespians have a slew of new tricks up their sleeves to astonish and delight, and 2013-14 was no exception. Taking on a range of works that varied from a classic musical romance penned by alumni to a new “Hamlet”-inspired play about idealism to an operatic retelling of a Greco-Roman myth, the Columbia theater community offered something to suit every viewer’s taste.

“Carousel”
In November, the Columbia Musical Theatre Society produced Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” The classic story of love and loss in a New England mill town reunited three CMTS veterans who had worked together last spring in “Light in the Piazza”: director Shelley Farmer, BC ’14; Geoff Hahn, CC/Julliard ’15, who played brooding carousel barker Billy; and Kyle McCormick, CC ’14, who portrayed his quiet, determined love interest, Julie. 

“Carousel” was an ambitious choice due to its operatic orchestrations and its balletic choreography, but a 20-piece orchestra handled the score with ease, and co-choreographers Emma Chaves, CC ’14, and Valentina Strokopytova, BC ’16, helped the cast of more than 30 actors pull off the fancy footwork. 

“The number of people who have come together to work on this show is inspiring,” Ally Engelberg, BC ’15 and the show’s producer, said.

“Top Girls”
Caryl Churchill’s prescient “Top Girls” was among the works Barnard’s theater department produced during its fall season. The play, which spans in scope from a dreamlike dinner party populated by prominent historical women to the politically volatile England of the 1980s, examines the costs of success and how women have grappled with them over time.

Under the direction of Mikhael Tara Garver, SoA ’10, the production succeeded technically, with strong acting and an innovative set. However, Garver’s decision to cast a white actress—Fiona Brunner, BC ’14—as Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese courtesan-turned-Buddhist monk who attends the protagonist Marlene’s fantasy dinner, caused controversy

The strongest outcry came from the Asian American Alliance, who argued that the choice constituted yellowface and was an especially poor decision given the general lack of Asian representation in the media. Garver’s statement to Bwog—“Fundamentally, I don’t believe there is color blind casting”—only exacerbated the situation.

“I’m not sure what her intentions were or if it was malicious, but there was just no understanding of the historical context of yellowface or blackface,” Michelle Loo, BC ’16 and vice president of AAA, said. “If you understand that, then you would understand why this was problematic. Historically, it’s been used to mock and marginalize people of color, and that’s the only time it’s ever been used in the history of theater. It’s always white people making fun of other people of color.”

“Passing Strange”
“Passing Strange,” a Tony Award-winning rock musical with music and lyrics by Mark “Stew” Stewart, marked the first collaboration between CMTS and Black Theatre Ensemble. The show follows an African-American teenager on his journey of self-discovery from Los Angeles to Europe in pursuit of “the real.”

Jess Swansonfor Spectator
passing strange | The Black Theatre Ensemble and Columbia Musical Theatre Society collaborated on “Passing Strange.”

The partnership was established to showcase works that deviate from the frothy productions that too often dominate Broadway box offices. Incorporating a variety of musical styles—punk, jazz, blues, and gospel—“Passing Strange” takes its audience on an immersive journey with the protagonist as he explores his racial and cultural identity.

[Related: Watch our four-part multimedia series on the castcostume designercreative team, and partnership behind “Passing Strange.”]

“It’s never too late to discuss social issues in musical theater, and so many musicals that tackle race are about the ’60s. And this musical is a reminder that we didn’t just stop tackling race after the civil rights movement,” said actress Jenny Singer, BC ’15 and a Spectator arts & entertainment columnist. “It’s still very much present, and anything that’s present politically and socially should be present on the Broadway stage.”

“Blown Youth”
This semester, Barnard’s theater department collaborated with downtown theater company New Georges for the second time, following “The Egg-Layers” in 2011, to commission an original work through the program New Plays at Barnard. The play, “Blown Youth”—a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by up-and-coming female playwright Dipika Guha—was selected by a reading panel and served as the centerpiece of the department’s spring 2014 season.

“It was one of four plays that we were really interested in, and she [Guha] made a compelling argument for why ‘Hamlet’ now and what she wanted to do with it, putting a woman at the center of that universe,” said Alice Reagan, the play’s director and an assistant professor of professional practice. 

In addition to strengthening the relationship between Barnard and New Georges, “Blown Youth” also provided space for the seven-person cast—which included thesis students such as India Choquette, BC ’14—to gain experience working with a new, challenging text that continued to be developed in the months leading up to the performance.

“This play is interesting because we’re having to rely on each other as the grounding point,” Choquette said, comparing it to known works where the script serves to ground the actors. “So the cast of seven women becomes the point that you rely on. ... You don’t know what the script will be, but you know who you’ll be with. So it’s very different from working on a published play in that way.”

“Dido and Aeneas”
Producing Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”—one of the first operatic works written in English—Columbia’s Bach Society brought to life a story many are familiar with from the Core Curriculum syllabus. For the opera, Bach Society’s orchestra and chorus were joined by singers from Barnard, Columbia, and the Columbia-Julliard Exchange program. 

Music director and conductor Kevin Lee, CC ’14, cherry-picked the work because of its relation to the Core. Although “Dido and Aeneas” was the first opera he worked on, he was joined by stage director Chris Browner, CC ’16 and Spectator’s opera critic, who is an opera veteran from his involvement with Columbia’s New Opera Workshop. In April, Browner directed NOW’s “Duets of Classic Operas,” one of two opera anthologies that the up-and-coming performance group produced in the spring 

“People see opera with a capital O,” Browner said. “They think it’s on a pedestal, old-fashioned, elitist, something removed, and it’s, like, dead. And boring. And it doesn’t have to be that way.” 

zoe.miller@columbiaspectator.com | @zoe_m_miller

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