Thursday, September 25, 2003

Sv. Nikolai needs more ideas 

The opening moments of Hinterland Theater's "The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai" hold much promise. Three musicians: a singer, an accordion player and a cellist begin a haunting, heart stopping mix of klezmer, folk and classical music. The rises and falls in the music evoke lost love, danger, torment and hope.

Two actors appear on stage dressed in big coats painted with tribal images. They wear rings on their ankles suggesting chained legs. They open an ark on the stage and reveal a miniature ship hanging over a painting of a dark, portentous sea.

So begins this operatic story of an 1808 shipwreck of the Sv. Nikolai, a small schooner en route from Alaska to Oregon and the tragedy that occurs when the ship's passengers encounter the native people of the Pacific Northwest.

What begins as a magical telling using puppets, innovative costumes and shadow play with live musical accompaniment, quickly turns into a plodding, dull tale. For the next 55 minutes, not much happened on the stage, besides repetitive movement by puppets and actors and some small backdrop changes.

The libretto has some lovely poetic language, for example when one of the characters says he is so hungry "he could drink the juice form your fingers." But the music and singing, which is done as a background to the visuals, can’t hold our interest for a full hour.

It's a delightful surprise when the actors turn their backs on us to reveal different characters painted on their backs and faces made with masks worn on the back of their heads. To make this show work, we need more of those lovely surprises that the Hinterland Theater so beautifully executed. As the show stands right now, the story described in the program is more interesting than the one that unfolds on the stage.

-- Gigi Rosenberg

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