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Silent Operas Resound

Maelstrom, the third chapter of the Domino Players' silent opera trilogy, left audiences speechless at the recent Region II Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. It represents the culmination of a journey that began in 2003. But is this really the end?


By Hilary Bentman

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When the cast and crew of Maelstrom entered the 1,000-seat Ohio Theatre in Cleveland last month, it marked the seventh time since 2004 that Albright College was invited to present at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region II.

When the curtain fell on the Domino Players' performance, the packed audience gave the company a standing ovation. 

“It was incredible to hear the crowd laugh, gasp and stay completely silent at all the right parts of the show,” said Alma Guijon ’15, who stage-managed the production. “I am still in awe from this performance."

KCACTF celebrates excellence in college-level theatre, and the professional response the following day was just as resounding.

Actor/mime Bill Bowers, the festival's keynote speaker, along with Tom Miller, director of education and outreach for Actors Equity Association, "both commended the passion and artistry of the Albright team,” said Julia Matthews, Ph.D., associate professor of theatre.

Maelstrom audiences responded not only to the show's artistry, but also to its ingenuity and unconventionality.

After all, what is more unconventional than a silent opera?

A Silent Opera

Maelstrom is actually the third silent opera, the culmination of the award-winning Ubu Saga trilogy, a bold and lyrical story inspired by drawings penned for Alfred Jarry’s infamous play, Ubu Roi.

This story began with Spirale, originally staged at Albright in 2003. Audiences were introduced to the adventures of Ubu, an affable prince who battles the forces of evil to win the hand of the fair Princess Mira.

Created by Albright artist in residence Jeffrey Lentz '85 and artist/set designer Cocol Bernal, it is a unique and compelling story of love and redemption, told through beautiful movements orchestrated to the music of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Glinka. But it is Tchaikovsky who serves as the "lifeblood of all three productions," said Lentz.

In a bold step, Lentz and Bernal chose to forgo dialog completely.

"As I remember it, we were both really jazzed by the idea of creating a play [well, as it turned out, three plays] using the language of physical theatre/body language," said Lentz.

But Lentz acknowledged that at first people had trouble grasping the concept. It wasn't ballet, pantomime or modern dance.

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“It's very much like making a silent movie,” said Bernal. “If there are no words, the range of what we can say is much narrower and limited to simpler universal emotions, rather than complicated machinations that would be very hard to explain.”

Spirale was only the third play Bernal had ever worked on. She was exclusively a visual artist but Lentz asked if she ever thought about set design.

"I said, 'Try one project. What's the worst that could happen?'" he recalls.

More than a decade later, the pair is still at it.

Bernal brought a new approach to the table. Instead of selecting or writing a show first and then designing the set for it, she devises the visual element, and the production is born from it.

“I don't know of any other way of working,” said Bernal. “It just makes sense that I first know what the possibilities for the world are and what's available, and then I can build the play around those parameters.”

Working with found objects and recycled materials – plastic water bottles become opulent chandeliers – has helped Bernal provide low-tech but effective and thought-provoking sets while keeping costs down.

Spirale was a hit. Albright was invited to that year’s KCACTF Region II festival, and the production was nominated for the national festival.

"It really, really took off," said Lentz. "It just hit. But it seemed like a one-off."

The Story Continues

It has taken more than 10 years to complete this trilogy. But its creators never intended it to have multiple parts.

“We never thought about it as a trilogy,” said Bernal. “We did toy with the idea from time to time in the last five years, but not seriously, not until April 2013, when we were asked to define our next project.

Matthews approached Lentz and Bernal about doing another silent piece.

"Our students had heard about Ubu,” said Lentz. “So I said to Cocol, 'What do you think about continuing the story?' She said, 'No, we killed everyone off.'"

Despite these obstacles, Lentz and Bernal got to work, quickly realizing this story should actually be a trilogy.

"It needed three chapters,” said Lentz. “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back."

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In fall 2014, the Domino Players staged chapter two – Vortex – a darker and more tortured piece. Tragedy strikes when the now-King Ubu and his beloved Queen Mira find themselves trapped in a lethal love triangle.

Theatre critics took notice.

Vortex was invited to the regional festival, and Bernal received a national KCACTF Distinguished Achievement in Scenography award. Albright’s technical director and faculty member Wayne E. Vettleson, M.F.A., associate professor of theatre, was honored with a national Distinguished Achievement in Lighting Design award.

Ellie Smith ’16 won the Student Dramaturgy Award for Region II for her work on Vortex.

Lentz recalls David Lee-Painter, theatre professor at the University of Idaho and respondent at the 2014 KCACTF festival, telling the Vortex company that no one was doing this kind of work in American theatre -- and certainly not with undergraduates.

"It was an attempt to make [the students] understand how rare this kind of work is," said Lentz. "The judges are amazed by the risk-taking. But that's exactly the reason to do it."

Bernal echoes his sentiment.

“Audiences want to see risk,” she said. “They pay to see us come close to the abyss and not fall into it. I believe that that's why they go to the theatre. I hope that our work inspires audiences, and particularly our students, to take risks.”  

A year later, the Domino Players raised the curtain on the third installment, Maelstrom.

The End?

As the final chapter unfolds, we have reached the eye of the storm.

An inexplicable calm pervades the House of Ubu. Queen Mira is dead. The King grieves. Caught in the middle, Princess Charlotte, Mira’s illegitimate child, grows in ignorance of the family secrets that contrive to destroy both her and her father. Will they be saved by the power of love and forgiveness, or swept into the raging currents of the maelstrom?

“Over the course of 12 years working together, Jeff and I have learned a lot about how to tell a sound story, and I believe that Maelstrom is the most exacting of the three,” said Bernal. “We learned the importance of a simple story.”

Lentz said he's "ecstatically happy" about the culmination of the story. But he's also not ruling out a part four.

Bernal jumps in: “We have to start from scratch with a new storyline and new symbols, but we do have lots of room to use the same characters… Well, the ones who are still alive, I would not mind doing so."

Several Albright students were recognized at the 2015 KCACTF Region II festival.

Anna’le Hornak ’16 won the Student Dramaturgy Award for Region II for her work on Maelstrom and is eligible to attend the National Festival at the Kennedy Center in April. 

"Having a hand in creating such a unique piece of theatre has inspired me to study dramaturgy further after I graduate from Albright, and the experience I had at KCACTF bolstered my confidence in myself as an artist," said Hornak.

Susie Benitez ’15 won the KCACTF Region II Theatrical Design Excellence in Costume Design for her work on the Domino Players’ Dancing at Lughnasa, staged at Albright last May. She will attend KCACTF's national festival in the spring.

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Six Albright actors also competed in the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship audition, and Nate Rothermel and his scene partner Faith Jones-Jackson, both class of 2018, advanced to the semi-final round, performing scenes from Gruesome Playground Injuries and Tartuffe.

Assistant professor of theatre Matt Fotis, Ph.D., also offered an improv workshop at the festival, “Stop Inventing and Play What’s Already There.”

Founded in 1969, KCACTF has grown into a network of more than 700 academic institutions throughout the country, where theatre departments and student artists showcase their work and receive outside assessment by KCACTF respondents.

Each year, regional festivals showcase the finest of each region's entered productions and offer a variety of activities, including workshops, symposia and regional-level award programs.

Region II includes Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Western New York, Northern Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

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