Art and Capitalist Consumption and “Room&Board&Opera”

Presented by Boston Opera Collaborative
Music by Jonathan Bailey Holland
Libretto for “The Battle of Bull Run Always Makes Me Cry” and “Naomi in the Living Room” by Jonathan Bailey Holland
Libretto for “Always” by Jon Jory
Music Director & Pianist for “Always” by Patricia Au
Stage Director for “Always” by Ingrid Oslund
Music Director & Pianist for “The Battle of Bull Run Always Makes Me Cry” and “Naomi in the Living Room” by Jean Anderson Collier

November 7, 2019
375 Newbury Street, 
Boston, MA 02115

Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) Room & Board is a US-chain of upscale furniture stores that started in Minnesota about three decades ago. The particular one I went to on Newbury Street has a showroom that has been utilized in a number of Boston-based events, so maybe it’s not so surprising that a theater company would see an opportunity to bring art into an unlikely space. Boston Opera Collaborative has pushed forward with this unexpected, incongruously hilarious venue, setting three, ten-minute comic operas in this space for what was a one-night only event and a unique moment in my time as a theater critic.

The show featured three short operas all with music by composer Jonathan Bailey Holland, a native of Flint, Michigan, who serves as Chair of Composition, Contemporary Music, and Core Studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His pieces are written in English with a quick, colloquial back-and-forth and a contemporary sense of rhythm that creates dynamic works all of which are set in the domestic abodes of present day Americans.

Perhaps these plays were partially chosen because the surroundings lend itself well to dark comedy and satires involving dissatisfaction with a culture focused on consumption rather than human relationships. The characters in these pieces all struggle to find footing as they connect, or fail to connect, with the people around them.

“Always” is based on the play by Jon Jorry. In it, we see the beginning and end of a relationship between John and Ellen. As their younger selves, played by an enormously hopeful Wes Hunter and a warm Carley DeFranco, move in together, their older selves, an indignant Ethan DePuy and an aching Tamara Marsan-Ryan, prepare to move out. The young couple are thrilled to be moving in together, cuddling and joking with one another, as their older selves, occupying the same space, repeatedly fail to bridge the gap that continues to expand between them. 

This first piece is a brittle tragicomedy. Along with the audience, I found myself laughing at the parallel dialogue and mirror singing structure. There is no doubt that the young couple is happy nor their counterparts utterly miserable, and yet I deeply believed that the performers were indeed playing the same people, separated by years rather than inches.

Stage director Ingrid Oslund does a lovely job working with two sets of people occupying the same, small space, deftly handling the metaphor of a relationship with a bright history that ultimately fell apart. Music director and pianist Patricia Au pumped music into the air that scrubbed against raw skin and exposed nerves with elegance.

“The Battle of Bull Run Always Makes Me Cry” takes a turn for the relateabley absurd. Based on Carole Real’s play, Donna (Carina DiGianfilippo) regales her friends, Amy (the hilarious Rebecca Krouner) and Linda (an extremely believable Alyssa Hensel) with a date she had with a man named Patrick (Junhan Choi). The warm music, as interpreted by music director and pianist, Jean Anderson Collier, illustrates the familiar, gentle ebb and flow of a lived-in friendship. 

The stage, like “Always,” is also split along a temporal divide. Half of the stage is the apartment where the friends converse and the other half depicts the date Donna had with Patrick. This is a romantic comedy and the tone, like the music, changes from bitter cynicism to a cautious but gentle optimism as they try to find a connection that does (and doesn’t) have anything to do with Civil War battles. 

The last piece of the evening was “Naomi in the Living Room,” based on Christopher Durang’s infamous short play. In it, Naomi (the vibrant Lindsay Conrad) welcomes her son, John (Junhan Choi), and his wife, Johanna (Britt Brown), into the titular living room. There, what looks like a potentially nice evening quickly deteriorates. Naomi’s looping, odd logic keeps changing the stakes of the show, her instability changing the meaning of random words and comments from commonplace to radically horrifying.

Conrad does an excellent job of playing Naomi with unhinged enthusiasm, allowing the character some room for ambiguity as even she admits she’s unreasonable and unpleasant. The story explores its characters, no matter how alienating, with sympathy. It reminds us human emotions don’t disappear when mental stability deteriorates. The character of Naomi is a perfect fit for the world of opera, her oversized personality pushing at the confines of a ten-minute show. It’s a banger of a way to close a show.

Grafting art into a place centered on the purchase of goods causes a strange sense of disassociation. I understand wanting to have opera in non-traditional venues, but while I can imagine comic opera like the ones on display November 7th working well enough, opera infused with heaving, more difficult themes could be a hard sell, here.

Also, Room&Board proved to be a challenge to navigate. There seemed to be some miscommunication between the theater and the store because I was told to go upstairs only to be told, firmly and with some indignance by one of the stage directors, to head back down again. This experience didn’t sour my evening, but it did make me feel particularly uncharitable toward the “experimental” approach of having opera in a venue constructed for selling goods where more than a few customers were still wandering around as the store hours came to a close. 

Saying all that, the acoustics make for a fine venue and, certainly, I’m a fan of more theater spaces in the Boston area, not less. My hope is that the Boston Opera Collaborative will continue to explore new spaces for opera that is humorous, tragic, or challenging, and won’t ever simply be used to sell furniture.

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