Cast and Production Team
We had almost given up on theater (which we don't generally review) finding most contemporary plays to be either trivial or polemic. Last night was a completely different experience and we decided to write about it since the subject was opera singers. The title of the play The Smallest Sound in the Smallest Space seems to have layers of meaning--anatomical, psychological, and philosophical. As far as the material and its impact, it made a great big sound, although occurring in a small space which we believe is called Nancy Manocherian's the cell theatre.
Personally, we are very fond of intimacy and sharing this profound experience with probably around 50 other people served to increase the impact. Good theater, in our opinion, must be very specific, and allow us in the audience to personalize it in a manner that touches our own memories and experiences.
The play, written by Bryce McClendon, tells the tale of a university voice teacher (Shah Motia) under investigation by a compliance officer (Shelly Lynn Walsh). The audience gets to see his interaction with a colleague (Ai Chaim Ra) and several students (Alexander Rodriguez, Rachel Policar, Heather Jones,and Morgan Mastrangelo) as well as coach/pianists (Nathaniel LaNasa and Savannah Bergli).
We also get to hear the students' reports to the compliance officer and to notice the effects of self-repression, largely due to fear of consequences and also to the assumption of guilt by victims who blame themselves.
Having had several voice teachers and having sat in on coachings by others, we found fault with the teacher's methods. He blathered on about himself, he multi-tasked on his cell phone, he made weird assumptions and asked intrusive questions, he supported at times indiscriminately, and attacked with humiliation. We have no doubt such teachers exist but we have thankfully never been exposed to such egregious "tutelage", at least not in the field of opera.
The worst misconduct, however, was getting a male student intoxicated and bringing him home for some drunken and regrettable sex. Please do not think that we are jumping on the bandwagon of tarring and feathering every teacher and singer who touches another singer. Teachers putting hands on ribs to facilitate deeper breathing or touching parts of the face seems fine to us. And hugging fellow cast members after a performance? Doesn't seem like a problem to us. Equals can always set boundaries for their colleagues.
The problem with student/teacher interaction is the power dynamic. Even in the "me too" epoch, students may hang back out of fear of retaliation or out of self-blame. And here's where the generalization and personalization enters the picture. The same thing happens in medical training, law training, and probably every other kind of training. I would be surprised if there were any members of the audience thinking that this didn't apply to them.
Stage Director Katy Early made the inter-connected scenes quite clear. The only confusing part was the opening in which Kent (the teacher) was very noisily warming up his voice, disturbing the compliance officer who was making calls from a nearby desk trying to hear over the din. It took a few minutes to figure out that they did not share a space.
Speaking of space, the Chelsea venue appears to be a repurposed townhouse and the setting made good use of an exposed stairccase and overhead loft. One surmises that the simple but effective set (piano, bookshelves, and desk) was designed as a group project, since it became clear that The Why Collective (the Founder and Artistic Director of which is Sydney Anderson) comprises people of many talents.
For example,the actors portraying student singers are also opera singers and we enjoyed hearing Mr. Rodriguez singing "Dies bildnis" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Rachel Policar giving. "Volate amori" from Händel's Ariodante a performance colored by her character's inhibition, and Heather Jones' interpretation of "En sourdine" from Debussy's Fêtes Galantes. The challenge for each of the three singers was to sing it in the voice of the character they were portraying--no small feat.
During the last scene with Mx. Jones, she converts the "small sound" insisted upon by her teacher to a swelling large sound, thereby illustrating her liberation from authoritarian intimidation. We in the sudience feel free thereby to make our own large sounds. And isn't this enlightenment and spiritual enhancement what theater is all about?
It is our dearest wishes that the run of this work be extended so that more people can receive the message.
© meche kroop