Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Basil Twist’s Petrushka"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi


music by Igor Stravinsky
created and directed by Basil Twist

Performed by:

Matthew Acheson; Kate Brehm; Kirsten Kammermeyer;
Jononthon Lyons; Erin Orr; Tom Lee; Lake Simons;
Christopher Williams; Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith

Pianists… Irina and Julia Elkina

In 2004, Boston’s Opera House came back with a roar with THE LION KING, the Gaiety Theatre was torn down in 2005 (a tragedy that it wasn’t saved), and, now, two historic movie theatres --- the wee Modern and the larger Paramount --- have been bought, rebuilt and reborn by (respectively) Suffolk University and Emerson College: the Modern, as performing space and residence hall for Suffolk students; the Paramount, as host for world-class performers of music, dance, and theatre.

The Modern Theatre recently held an open house which I attended: I came away with a brochure which outlines the Modern’s history so well that it would be pointless to crib from it; I quote, in full:

[BEGIN EXCERPT] The Modern Theatre began its life in 1876 as the storefront and warehouse of the Dobson brothers, the most successful carpet manufacturers of the day. The architectural firm of Levi Newcomb & Son conceived the building’s High Victorian Style and built it in sandstone and brownstone.

In 1913, the Dobson Building was transformed into the 800-seat Modern Theatre – Boston’s first venue designed specifically to present the sensational new medium of the age, motion pictures. Clarence H. Blackall, one of Boston’s most prestigious architects, led this conversion. His greatest achievements include Tremont Temple, the Colonial and Wilbur theaters, and the city’s first steel-frame skyscraper.

In its heyday, the theater was owned and operated by innovator Jacob Lourie. He invested early in film sound equipment and premiered THE JAZZ SINGER in Boston. As nearby vaudeville theaters began showing movies to compete with him, Lourie introduced the double feature, a concept that quickly swept across the country.

The Great Depression took a toll on Boston theaters, and the 1950s witnessed a further decline. By the 1980s, the forsaken Modern Theatre was considered beyond repair. And yet, this theater had been included on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Washington Street Theater District in 1979. The Modern Theatre earned an additional designation as a Boston Landmark in 1995. In 2008, Suffolk University purchased the Modern Theatre in cooperation with the City of Boston. This act set the stage for the renaissance of this landmark building and its vital neighborhood. [END EXCERPT]

Both the Modern and the Paramount were boarded up when I moved to Boston in 1991; about fifteen years ago, I charmed my way into having a look-see at the Modern’s interior (the realtor thought I was a prospective buyer): I saw a long, narrow auditorium, filthy and decayed --- a sort of mini-set for Mr. Sondheim’s FOLLIES --- the shallow stage area could display nothing thicker than a movie screen, and there were neither flies nor backstage space. The chairs and rugs on the main floor had long been removed; the auditorium walls, if there once were murals, were stripped down to its bedrock (bricks? concrete?). The side stairs in the halls were rotting and not to be ascended; only the balcony remained intact and looked sturdy, enough. Having seen the Modern in death, I hastened to the open house to see its rebirth --- the attendees were divided into groups and led down industrial stairs and through industrial hallways, encountering backstage “ghosts” from the Modern’s past to present (i.e. student actors, declaiming in period costumes), concluding in the auditorium and being serenaded by singers around a grand piano (all in all, about a twenty-minute tour). There is no longer any stage, per se: the performing area extends from behind its proscenium and becomes the auditorium floor (upstage has been considerably deepened). Apart from a few permanent rows in the back of the house, the floor remains bare (presumably, stackable chairs/tables will be added, when necessary). Those rotting side-stairs have been replaced with spanking-new ones but passage up to the balcony remained verboten (for fear of necking?). The murals have been created by one of Broadway’s leading designers --- I found the cherubs and tendrils too kitschy for words; the designer has captured the surface of a vanished era but not necessarily its spirit; since unadorned black predominates in the auditorium, cream- or pink-colored walls would have suited me just fine. This is the “Modern”, after all.

You couldn’t miss the Paramount, even in decline, because of its stretch-marquee and upright P-A-R-A-M-O-U-N-T sign, even with all of its light-bulbs missing and its entrance blocked by blowups of 1930s movie stars (the movie-house was built in 1932). One day, years ago, I was passing by the Paramount when its marquee suddenly lit up, fresh light-bulbs all in place --- one of those magical moments that can reduce an adult to a wide-eyed child. The bulbs twinkled, horizontally and vertically and lighting up, one by one, was P……..A……..R…..… I stared and wondered over this electric miracle; after awhile, the marquee went dark, again. Apparently, this was a lighting test by someone at the switch, within --- a sign of hope? And, now, the Paramount marquee once again lights up lower Washington Street: you truly cannot miss it, now.

The Paramount lobby and staircases please with Art Deco in mustard-tones, but its auditorium’s wall are too “busy” with Art Deco columns framed by zig-zag borders, topped with streamlined nudes, and clashing with pastel murals of 18th-century lovers in languid tableaus; meanwhile, reproductions of a bearded, laughing Old Comedy mask run rampant along the tops of the walls. For my money, the Cutler-Majestic Theatre continues to have the most beautiful interiors in Boston…lavish, but consistently lavish.

At the Paramount, ArtsEmerson and Celebrity Series of Boston are co-hosting the Boston premiere of a puppet production of PETRUSHKA, conceived and directed by Basil Twist, using Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music transcribed for two pianos. Mr. Twist focuses on Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor and substitutes hands, shapes and curtains for the Charlatan and villagers (for the confused, Mr. Twist provides his own scenario in the program). If you are not familiar with PETRUSHKA, I suggest you listen to Mr. Stravinsky’s original score and then its transcription, followed by viewing a clip of the ballet, itself, especially if you plan to attend with children; that way, you better can understand, if not appreciate, what Mr. Twist is doing. The swirlings throughout PETRUSHKA provide little illumination, especially when they follow Mr. Stravinsky’s Sonata for Two Pianos which accompanies nothing BUT swirlings (without the Sonata, however, this would be a very short evening, indeed). But whenever Mr. Twist focuses on his star-crossed trio, his PETRUSHKA soars, having one distinct advantage: instead of flesh and blood dancers impersonating sawdust and wood, here are puppets evoking human emotions and executing staccato footwork and leaps that no dancer can achieve. There is enough reflected light on the puppeteers to hint at how their creations work; still, the most wondrous moments are whenever the Ballerina turns en pointe in a complete circle or is tossed in the air, facing up, to flip over and be caught facing down (how how HOW is that done?). This all takes place within a golden, scaled-down picture frame, proving that intimate productions CAN work on large stages. Oh, Huntington…

Irina and Julia Elkina, identical-twin pianists, provide the accompaniment --- piping in the original score (which has the same running time) would have made for a bolder, more theatrical event. Using two pianos, this PETRUSHKA is a Punch & Judy evening.

"Basil Twist’s Petrushka" (11-21 November)
Paramount Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 824-8000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide