"Comedy on the Bridge” and “Brundibar"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
There is no denying the impeccable credentials of the two stars involved in Yale Rep’s current production, “A Comedy on the Bridge” and “Brundibar.” Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner and noted illustrator/author Maurice Sendak have joined forces to create these two pieces, adapting two short European operas. Given the status of these two, we expected a dynamite show, but, unfortunately, the reality falls short of expectations. Sendak, whose many marvelous children’s books have evoked a magical world, does not create such a world on this stage (a set he created with designer Kris Stone). And while Kushner, whose “Angels in America” had a profound impact on theater and society as well, merely scribbles pleasant dialogue this time around. The chief disappointment are the sets, which might be considered fine in a school production, but hardly what one expects from this notable team.
The first is a short piece citing the absurdities of war, and the second, an opera for and about children, deals with oppression and rebellion. Noble sentiments in both cases, but given the slightest, most shallow of treatments. In “Comedy” four people find themselves trapped on a bridge between two warring factions, barred from both sides. In “Brundibar” a villain keeps two penniless starving children from getting help.
The real importance of this show are not the pieces themselves nor their present incarnation, but their connection to the historic past—in particular “Brundibar.” The original opera was written by a Czech Jew named Hans Krasa, and originally performed at a Jewish orphanage in Prague. Later “Brundibar” would be performed again and again in Theresienstadt (or Terezin), the Nazi’s “model ghetto” which was actually a way-station to the death camps. Each group of children would perform the show, then given a one-way ticket to Auschwitz, Birkenau, or Treblinka. They were then replaced by a new batch of children. Not only the performers, but every one connected with the opera, would eventually be murdered in the camps. As to “Comedy,” the libretto was written by a Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu at the height of the Nazi regime and reflects the growing horror of war.
If one sees these pieces as a tribute honoring the dead, the effort is admirable. Moreover, the two short operas are a collabaration on many levels, and that, too, is admirable. First, the show is a joint production of Yale Repertory Theatre and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Secondly, the Yale School of Music is also involved in the enterprise, providing the young musicians. And, finally, gifted schoolchildren from the entire area have been recruited for the ensemble.
On the positive side, Tony Taccone (who is artistic director of the Berkeley Rep) has directed both pieces beautifully, and, in “Brundibar,” he herds his young charges through the crowd scenes and song numbers with a sure hand. As to the children, the two young leads—Aaron Simon Gross and Devynn Pedell—are a delight, marked by Gross’s pleasing voice and Pedell’s acting skills. But the others in the ensemble never miss a beat as the story unfolds. As to the adult performers, Joe Gallagher is a properly scary Brundibar (the villain), and Angelina Reaux gives a delicious performance as the Cat. Geoff Hoyle is also a lively, amusing Dog. As to “Comedy,” its strongest moments are those when the four performers sing in unison. All four—again Reaux, with Anjali Bhimani, Martin Vidnovic, and Matt Farnsworth—give professional performances under Taccone’s skilled guidance.
In all, however worthy the cause, and however skilled the production and performances, this effort simply does not come up to one’s expectations.
-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 15, 2006