2019-20 Review: As One
Liz Bouk & Nathaniel Sullivan Shine In Bea Goodwin’s ‘Less is More’ ApproachBy Chris Ruel
The Nov. 8th, 2019 performance of Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s “As One,” produced by Liz Bouk and directed by Bea Goodwin, was a brilliant display of what a small, tightly-knit artistic team can create using a “less is more” approach.
Bouk’s “As One” was staged in a white box theater, using stacked cardboard boxes, a folding table, two chairs, and a bicycle wheel. The simplistic approach held far more meaning than some of the more refined sets that have been used recently on opera stages big and little. In under two hours of minimalistic opera theater, I felt emotionally gut-punched, having taken a journey inside the mind and memories of Hannah, a transgender woman struggling to unite Hannah-before with Hannah-after. Eventually, she succeeds and becomes as one, but the road on which she and the audience travel is loaded with emotion–sometimes harrowing, at other times humorous, and consistently eye-opening.
If opera is about the human experience and, if one of art’s purposes is to open new paths of thought and understanding, Bouk, Goodwin, and Whitney George, conducting The Curiosity Cabinet, succeeded in both aspects.
The hazard of producing and directing a chamber opera featuring just two singers is the high potential for sterility and coldness if the performers lack authentic connection while on stage. This is particularly the case when putting on a production in which the central theme is the unification of the mind, body, and spirit of two ostensibly incongruent aspects of a conflicted protagonist.
Goodwin’s compelling stage direction and Bouk’s passion for the work skirted the park and bark pitfall that can happen in such a thought-oriented piece with scant action, even one that has celebrated filmmaker Kimberly Reed’s footage running behind the singers, visually representing Hannah’s memories and assisting the plot’s forward momentum.
Whitney George’s leadership and capacity to tame a wild score meant to mimic the disorientation present within Hannah’s psyche was impressive. Her task of keeping The Curiosity Cabinet string quartet and the singers in sync was challenging, but she did it with seeming ease and beautiful style.
Earlier, in 2018, Bouk looked to stage “As One,” but was unable to secure the rights. The impediment generated an opportunity for Bouk and Goodwin to create “Mr. Liz’s One [wo] Man Show: [Living in the In-Between].” This year, upon securing the performance rights of “As One,” Bouk underwrote the entire production through Kickstarter, and he handpicked Goodwin and George, trusting them implicitly to make his production sparkle with intensity and meaning.
The outcome was a visceral display of the title itself as Sullivan, cast in the role of Hannah-before, and Bouk, as Hannah-after, were never out of sync in their actions or singing. Goodwin applied theater techniques such as physical theater and contact improv to produce the desired result, making these exercises a critical element during the short 16 days of rehearsals.
An Emotion-Driven Story in Which Less Was More
“As One” is a story driven by emotion, and, with little distance between audience and artist, every nuance of expression apparent. The opera requires acting skills in equal measure to vocal talent; if the performers fail to possess the requisite abilities, “As One” can fall flat. A similar danger arises if the set lacks imagination and import. If you follow Goodwin’s work, you know nothing is superfluous—she loads everything with meaning. Her set gave Bouk and Sullivan, as well as the audience, a frame that reinforced the underlying idea that “As One” is as much a memory play, as Goodwin noted in the program, as it is an opera.
In true less is more fashion, the set consisted of stacked cardboard boxes, a few children’s toys such as board games and balsa wood airplanes, and boxed Christmas decorations. It was the attic of Hannah’s memories. Centered between the cartons were a single folding table and two chairs. A bicycle wheel served as a visual for the opening number “Paper Route,” in which Hannah-before recounts working as a paperboy, tossing newspapers onto front lawns while zipping along on his bicycle. The prop doubled as a steering wheel when Hannah needed to take to the road.
Goodwin decided to involve the audience in the show and did so during the “Sex Ed” scene when Bouk and Sullivan were at their farthest distance apart on stage. The two sat facing away from the audience as Reed’s snippets of vintage 1950s sexual education films played on the wall.
In a masterful stroke, Goodwin included within the opera’s program detailed diagrams of the male and female reproductive system, making the audience part of the class. Situated above the pictures was John Donne’s poem “No Man Is an Island.” The audience was asked to join in the reading of the poem. The effect was liturgical, a recitation of commonality, but, in a striking rebuttal of cultural norms, Hannah-before declares to his classmates that he needs no one, and no one needs him. He lives on the island of non-islanders.
From this point forward, Hannah-before begins the journey of discovery, tussling with tremendous amounts of fear, doubt, and confusion.
Transitioning from Before to After
In “The Perfect Boy,” Hannah-before attempts to prove to himself that he is indeed a boy. “I must must! be the perfect boy. The fastest, the smartest, the strongest, the best, the perfect boy,” Sullivan boomed. “Class President, Straight “A’s,” Star quarterback…” But these accomplishments only served to heighten Hannah-before’s sense of “living on an island of non-islanders.”
While it was challenging to wrap my head around Sullivan’s robust baritone singing the role of an adolescent and teenaged boy, it worked nevertheless because of Goodwin’s emphasis on the story, allowing suspension of disbelief to overcome the vocal incongruity quickly. The libretto calls for a baritone, so, during the opening scenes, no matter the production, there will always be dissonance between the character’s age and the heavy voice.
After “Perfect Boy” came “To Know.” Hannah-before sees a transgender woman on television and has his “aha” moment, learning of a culture he never knew existed. The first steps along the road to self-unification take him to the local library. A lighthearted interlude follows as Hannah-before surreptitiously peruses the card catalog, reading each card: “‘Transatlantic travel.’ Farther. ‘Transfiguration, The.’ Farther. ‘Transylvania.’ Too far.” Locating and reading a book explaining the feelings he is struggling to reconcile, Hannah-before enters a transitional stage, eventually relocating to Marin County, California. Here he gains the freedom to explore his identity, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and discovering community in San Francisco.
Soon, he commences hormone treatment, and Hannah-before slips into the background, but he doesn’t go away—some part of him will always be there, and that is what ultimately needs to be reconciled. As Hannah-after emerges from the chrysalis, Bouk’s brilliant contralto voice is allowed to blossom with his vocal line featuring a beautiful melismatic motif representing the flight of Hannah-after’s soul as it attains new heights of liberation.
“Three Words” and “Home for the Holidays”
Among the most poignant scenes of the evening were “Three Words” and “Home for the Holidays.” “Three Words,” tell of the first time a person refers to Hannah-after as miss. “Pardon me miss. Three words. Pretty dull as words go. But they mean everything to me.” Convincing delight flowed across Bouk’s face as his character recollected the validating encounter.
“Home for the Holidays” was a tear-jerker of a scene as Hannah-after sat at the folding table, writing to her family. She explains why she can’t come home during Christmas time, blaming work and her inability to afford a plane ticket. Of course, the audience knows the actual reason, and it’s heartbreaking.
“A Christmas Story,” continues pushing the knife into the heart. Hannah-after is despairingly lonely on Christmas Day. She retreats to a coffee shop as the cello plays the lachrymose melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The violinists and violist don Santa hats as they step into the scene, taking up the role of carolers, and singing “Silent Night.” Hannah-after recounts how a man approached and showed interest in her for the first time as a woman.
Kimberly Reed’s film is literal at this point, perhaps too much so; I found it to be unnecessary. The text was unambiguous as Hannah-after recounts the awkward flirting, a second puberty as she calls it, that was simultaneously terrifying and thrilling, bringing her a sliver of joy on what was otherwise an emotionally dark day.
Lining the walls of the theater were images and details of 21 Americans murdered in anti-transgender violence in 2019. As of this writing, 2019 has a month and a half remaining. Averaged out, there have been close to two murders per month. “As One” confronts the violence head-on graphically depicting an assault on Hannah-after in “Out of Nowhere.” Attacked while walking to her car in a dark parking lot, Hannah-after fights and pleads with her assailant while begging her car engine to start.
The scene is gut-wrenching and horrific, so much so, the production team thought it wise to issue a trigger warning. In the midst of the attack, Sullivan, acting as the narrator, reads off the names of transgender people murdered around the world. Intense seems too weak of a word to describe the scene.
After the assault in the parking lot, Hannah-after flies to Norway to stay at a friend of a friend’s cabin. Norway. What? Why Norway? Based on the recitation of the places in which transgender individuals were murdered, there seem to be few safe havens. Is Norway more secure than any other locale? It just didn’t make any sense. Juxtaposed against “Out of Nowhere,” the jump to Norway is jarring and lets the air out of the tires in an otherwise strong libretto.
I’m sure librettists Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed had their reasons for Hannah’s sojourn in Scandinavia, but wouldn’t the solitude of the northern California forest have fit just as well? That she needed to get away from the city and come to a final resolution was apparent, but Norway stretched credibility.
Some have described “As One” as a song cycle. It certainly has that feel, but the cohesiveness of the narrative is too strong for it to fit neatly into that category.
“Out of Nowhere,” as mentioned above, was unforgettable. Whitney George led her quartet into the horror with dissonant sliding strings punctuated with jabs from the cello and viola. Smacks of the bows ratcheted up the suffocating sense of utter panic.
“Two Cities” introduced the recurring melisma within Bouk’s vocal line representing flight–the spirit taking off as it overcame obstacles previously believed to be insurmountable. It was during these flourishes that Bouk reached the top of his range, and he did so with velvety smoothness and control.
During “A Christmas Story,” Sullivan cruised into his head voice with ease and then descended into the middle of his range flawlessly.
Co-librettist, filmmaker Kimberly Reed’s visual representation of Hannah’s experience through film, and projected on the wall behind Bouk and Sullivan were mesmerizing without being distracting. The use of film can be misused, but Reed avoided adding anything unnecessary to the overall story arc. (Except Norway.)
Bouk and Sullivan’s voices were well paired, as were their acting abilities. Goodwin’s direction and approach were the correct ones to take as it brought out the strongest aspects of the duo’s skills, and George brought her A-game to the podium. Words, music, and movement combined to create a moving experience that was as beautiful as it was challenging.