WINDOWS A New Play by Tawni O’Dell

Tawni O’Dell‘s new play WINDOWS illuminates the changes that have washed over us these past three years. Starring Avantika, Craig Bierko, Tony Danza, Erin Darke, Jeffrey Donovan, Tovah Feldshuh, Adam Kantor, Carolyn McCormick, Jesse Nager, & Tonya Pinkins. FIVE PERFORMANCES ONLY at Town Hall. March 25-27. Who have you become? Learn more.

11 lives, 8 stories, endless frustration.

Fear, hilarity, anger, loss, and love unfolding behind curtains, blinds, broken glass, and bars. Whether navigating the self-reflection of isolation, or the unease of a chance meeting between strangers in need, or the simple realization of how much we value our most basic connection with others, Windows delves into the devastation and new beginnings found in a world forced to face an abyss together but alone. What we each endured as individuals when time suddenly stood still may have differed, but we were all changed by the experience. Our characters reshaped. For better or worse.

HGO premieres a colorful children’s opera of cooperation with “The Big Swim”

By Steven Brown for the Texas Classical Review February 17, 2024

Houston Grand Opera presented the world premiere of The Big Swim at the Asia Society Texas Center Friday night. Photo: Lynn Lane

As operagoers mingled in the lobby of Houston’s Asia Society Texas Center, two sturdy male voices suddenly rang out.

“Come in! Come on in,” they sang, heartily and genially. “Take your seats! There’s excitement in the air.” 

The voices’ owners, posted near the steps to the center’s theater, were all the more attention-getting thanks to their elaborate, colorful costumes—one dominated by an orange-and-black robe suggesting a tiger’s stripes.

The duo’s invitation launched Friday’s world premiere of The Big Swim by composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, commissioned by the Asia Society and Houston Grand Opera.

The groups are billing the hour-long work as a family-friendly affair. With its high-spirited score, action-packed staging and vivid costumes, it easily lives up to the claim.

The Big Swim was inspired by a Chinese folk tale that explains why the 12 creatures of the lunar zodiac appear in their specific order: They race down a river to earn their places in the sequence.

Librettist Tien has added a twist of her own. As the race unfolds, the water grows deeper and more dangerous, and the animals save themselves by clinging to one another. Tien’s goal, she explains is a program note, is show the value of banding together in the face of adversity.

“Side by side, competitors no more,” the animals declare at the close. “Side by side in the river of life, we will thrive.”

The twelve animals, portrayed by six singers, make up the opera’s cast.

As the creatures enter, one or two at a time, Tsui’s lively, colorful score helps their personalities come across—from the live-wire rat to the sultry snake. The latter has the most extensive introductory number, replete with sinuous vocal lines.

The competitors quickly launch into conspiracies and comic trash-talking. The rat proposes to the ox that they double up; the pig has to listen to the monkey envision her as a snack of bacon—only to change his mind and suggest sausage.

The characters came and went with vitality galore on opening night.

Mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce, fresh from playing Suzuki in HGO’s Madama Butterfly, offered the nimblest vocal character-sketching. When she portrayed the snake, her voice sounded deep, plummy and a little sinister; transforming into the sheep, her almost-nasal tones hinted at a bleat.

Seiyoung Kim’s high-wire tenor and bundle-of-energy demeanor made the monkey and rat the most vibrant animals of the contest. No wonder the rat won the race.

Soprano Meigui Zhang’s gleaming tone lent flashiness to the rabbit and horse. Mezzo-soprano Alice Chung brought fullness and warmth to the ox and pig, and she gave a more pensive aura to the ox’s musings about life as an adult.

Baritone Joseph Lim sang with a lustiness that brought out the vigor of the tiger and rooster, and bass Zaikuan Song’s deep-rooted tones put across the dragon’s pride and the dog’s good humor. Lim and Song’s voices also blended neatly in the initial welcome in the lobby.

Tsui’s six-player instrumental group generally chimes in energetically—sometimes with chugging ostinatos—but lightly enough to let the voices come through. During a confrontation between the rabbit and tiger, the music harkens back to an agitated 20th-century atonalism. When the racers navigate the river’s terrors, their voices join in a sonorous ensemble.

With each singer portraying two animals apiece, the costumes play a crucial role in illuminating who is what, and Valérie Thérèse Bart’s ingenious, vibrant designs are one of The Big Swim’skey charms.

The singers are fitted out with intricate reversible headgear, each side of which represents one animal’s face fairly realistically—except, of course, for the scarily fanciful dragon. To complement those, the singers switch between robes and other components that help flesh out their identities, from the pig’s pink smock to the rat’s several-foot-long tail.

The Big Swim’s characters come and go constantly, and stage director Mo Zhou avails of that to keep the stage action bustling.

When the race gets under way, it’s obviously impossible to show all 12 competitors at once, but Zhou and the opera’s creators make up for that by having them zoom across the stage one or two at a time. At the climax, six singers turn out to be plenty to put across the all-for-one message.

All the while, Afsaneh Aayani’s economical set—dominated by a hill surmounted by a single tree—creates an evocative backdrop while leaving plenty of room for the characters’ comings and goings.

The instrumental sextet, led by conductor Eiki Isomura, added its own current of energy. And the cast rode the wave.

The Big Swim will be repeated 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Asia Society Texas Center. Both performances are sold out.

Review: “This is not a time of peace” Written by Deb Margolin, Mounts a Multi-layered Memory Play

Charlotte Cohn as Alina, Roger Hendricks SImon as Hillel. Photo by Steven Pisano.

The title of Deb Margolin‘s new play, This is not a time of peace, is spoken twice in the course of the performance, each time in reference to a different era. This doubling not only draws attention to historical correspondences but also evokes the play’s emphasis on memory and experience–every part of which, we are told, “is still happening” “somewhere in time”–as fluid and malleable and exceeding boundaries, a conception echoed in the form of the play itself. Based in part on autobiographical connections to Margolin’s actual father during the Cold War and making its world premiere at Midtown’s Theatre Row, This is not a time of peace sketches parallels between the personal and the political in its compelling rendition of a story at once intimate and with far-reaching resonances.

Steven Rattazzi as Joseph McCarthy. Photo by Steven Pisano.

A pair of monologues delivered by professional writer Alina (a spectacular Charlotte Cohn) provide a frame for the play and, taking place in 2020, represent its most contemporaneous portions. The rest of the show looks back, back to when Alina was still married to her gadget-loving husband Moses (Simon Feil) in the early 2000s, and further back to her father Hillel’s (Roger Hendricks Simon) encounter with McCarthyism half a century prior. The boundaries among these tangled threads of memory prove less than resilient as the narrative progresses, but one certainty from the outset is that Hillel’s past experiences have resulted in passing on what Alina refers to as a kind of “epigenetic” trauma. Hillel, a Jewish scientist with roots in Russia who worked for the U.S. government, lost his security clearance during the national persecution of Communists in the 1950s. But what were the specific circumstances? Was her father in fact a Communist? And did he really cross paths not only with the reprehensible Senator Joseph McCarthy (Steven Rattazzi) but also with storied McCarthy opponent Adolf Berle (Frank Licato)? Where does a Muscovite named Daniil (Richard Hollis) fit in? While Alina can still talk to her elderly father about his past, she commits to unraveling its mysteries and ambiguities.

Charlotte Cohn as Alina, Simon Feil as Moses. Photo by Steven Pisano.

As she attempts to pin down answers concerning Hillel, whose age-related lapses are an affecting part of Hendricks Simon’s multi-dimensional performance, Alina’s own domestic life is threatening to come undone. While she loves Moses, or maintains that she does, she has found herself having an affair with poet and novelist Martin (Ken King), about whom she has similarly conflicted feelings, and whose possessive passion and alpha masculinity present a sharp contrast to amiable IT worker Moses. The assertive physicality in scenes between King and Cohn fruitfully complements the sense skillfully created in scenes between Cohn and Feil of a sort of polite marital machine chugging along atop an expanding void of distance between its partners. Throughout, the sound and lighting design is put to subtle, even sparing, but quite effective use to generate unease, suggest confusion, and more, while the set design hints at a mesh of neural pathways as much as it does a network of roots.

Ken King as Martin, Charlotte Cohn as Alina. Photo by Steven Pisano.

This is not a time of peace makes clear the consonance between McCarthy’s language of internal enemies and the political rhetoric of today (“Communist” has retained its place among those enemy ranks by morphing into the more nebulous “socialist”). Alongside but inextricable from such linkages are its insightful explorations of guilt, betrayal, and fractured senses of belonging, as well as of the strength to do what we can for others/the Othered. Alina says that things only seem to end, and This is not a time of peace can be one of those things for anyone who sees it.

This is not a time of peace

Written by Deb Margolin
Directed by Jerry Heymann
Presented by New Light Theater Project at Theatre Row
410 W 42nd Street, Manhattan, NYC
February 20-March 16, 2024