The Connelly Theatre, with its pressed tin ceiling and graceful horseshoe balcony has been described as a miniature opera house so it's a fitting setting for this rare operatic fable. It is also something of a departure for the National Asian American Theatre Company (NATCO) which is dedicated to reviving western classics featuring Asian-American actors.
He Who Says Yes/He Who Says No is western only in the sense of its adaptation and translation (first into English, then German and now again into English). It originated as classic Japanese Noh-play or fable. Bertolt Brecht, the German adaptor and translator started out with just Der Jasager (German for The Yes Sayer) with Kurt Weill supplying an operatic musical score. The second part, added by Brecht after protests about the story's grimness, is a replay of the opera's text but without music and with a different ending. NATCO's presentation of this dual work marks its first New York production since 1933.
The plot line of the Yes fable remains severe. A boy's teacher and a group of older students plan an arduous mountain pilgrimage. One of the teacher's younger students wants to join in order to obtain medicine for his ailing mother. The teacher tries to dissuade him, but the boy persists and agrees to abide by the group's every custom. This includes one that decrees that anyone who becomes ill is asked if the group should turn back and face disgrace or move on even if that means he will be flung down into the valley. Sure enough, the boy sickens and must decide between his own welfare and the general good. As the title indicates, the boy makes two very different choices -- the second showing that "He who says A need not necessarily say B."
It's a simple parable and both the opera and the play clock in at less than an hour (including an intermission), making this one of the shortest and most unusual events currently playing on any stage in New York (far more inventive and less self-consciouly enigmatic than Pinter's 40-minute Ashes to Ashes and at $15 a ticket less of a quibble about value received).
The staging and performances are impeccable. These new to me actors (except for Thomas Kouo who I recently saw in a much more Broadway-like show, Making Tracks,) are fine singers and actors. I was particularly impressed with the poise of young Lexine Bondoc, one of two actors alternating in the part of the Boy.
Weill's music is not for everyone, especially with just a single piano. If opera evokes lyrical arias à la Verdi and Mozart, think instead of the likes of new music composers like Paul Hindemith and Paul Dessau. The school opera genre (written to be performed by and for students) and dramatized lesson in making sound moral choices is definitely not the stuff of musicals as we know them.
Ideally, this would be part of a music program like the Tanglewood Music Festival's annual Festival of New Music with its rich resources of instrumentalists and singers. In the meantime, NATCO deserves high praise not only for this imaginative production but for committing themselves to a work without the more certain audience appeal of well-known classics, including their last season's hit musical, Falsettoland.
|HE WHO SAYS YES
Opera In Two Acts by Kurt Weill
Text by Bertolt Brecht HE WHO SAYS NO
Text by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Jean Randish
Musical Director: Miriam Daly With Alan Muraoka (teacher) Lexine Bondoc and Kelly Jordan Bit (alternating as Boy), Lydia Gaston (Mother)
Grand Chorus: Elizabeth Chiang, Ching, Gonzalez, Timothy Ford Murphy, Eileen Rivera
Students: Richard Ceraulo, Peter Kim, Thomas Kouo
Set design: Klara Zieglerova
Costume design: Elly van Horne
Lighting design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound design: Robert Murphy
Flyer design: Casey Kohn
Translation: Wolfgang Sauerlander
Connelly Theatre, 220A East 4th Street (718/623-1672)
3/05/99-3/27/99; opened 3/11/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/11 performance