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A CurtainUp Review
The Hidden Sky
I've known The Hidden Sky for a long time. Many an impassioned e-mail about the show and its future has passed through my inbox over the years. So to say that hopes and expectations were high barely begins to cover it.
I'm happy to report that Prospect Theater Company's production is everything those who have known the show have been waiting for, a treat for them and those who've never heard of it.
Peter Foley's intricately thematic, deeply impassioned, evocative score with its haunting melodies, sweeping choral moments and driving undercurrents, captures the heart in an instant. But its most compelling quality is how precisely it captures the complex spirit of the story, from its poetic lyrics right down to the details in the orchestrations.
The show, which opens with a distinct sense of mystery and intrigue, is based on the short story "The Masters" by Ursula Le Guin (best known for her Earthsea novels). The post apocalyptic tale can be summed up as follows: In the city of Adan, following an unspecified but epic disaster, society is now governed by the priesthood. The people cannot see the sun as it has been obscured by ashen clouds, but the priests say that it is "angry." Technology is forbidden (a steam engine is Adan's highest advancement) and the pursuit of knowledge is restricted by law. Computing is not permitted so the Engine Masters must memorize any numbers needed for their job from a table of Roman Numerals (Arabic numbers are considered evil). However, there's a group of residents who hope to uncover the lost knowledge their ancestors once possessed even though anyone caught being a "seeker" is sentenced to death.
There is a pattern, there is a purpose, an undeniable design. — Ganil
What makes this musical adaptation of this somewhat esoteric story stand out is its delicately balanced approach. It is fearlessly intelligent and intellectual without being cumbersome or inaccessible. (Projections of numerals and diagrams help the audience visualize.) Though dark, challenging and spiritual, the Hidden Sky, is never alienating.
Wise, considerate direction by book writer Kate Chisholm highlights the poeticism and strength of the team's writing. Folk-inspired choreography and costume design beckon to the past in this post-apocalyptic future so that there is a certain timelessness that supports the subtle blend of folklore, fantasy and allegory.
Prospect Theater Company's home at the West End Theatre (in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on the Upper West Side) provides an almost-ideal space for a fully imagined Hidden Sky. The lofty ceiling and expansive upward openness give an added ambiance. That said, the show does often want to be larger than the shallow stage allows it to be. Thus, while it benefits overall from the intimate setting, its complexity and the many characters do feel somewhat constricted though in some ways, that constriction does also work to the show's benefit.
Curious, intelligent Ganil is played with poise and stunning vocals by Victoria Huston-Elem. This youngest Engine Master in Adan, hungers for knowledge and understanding of the world around her. Engaged to Lani (Mark Mozingo), who is her supervisor's son and on the road to priesthood, her inquisitive nature is stifled and trapped. T hough she finds a kindred spirit in Mede, a daring visitor from a nearby town, the outlet he offers her for exploration and creativity is forced to stay hidden underground and kept in total secret.
With Adan ruled governed by a hierarchy that promotes complacency and a blind acceptance of what the priesthood teaches, The Hidden Sky boldly explores the notion of governance by fear. Mede, Ganil and their community of Seekers not only strive to re-learn what has been buried, but challenge the assumption that science and religion, knowledge and faith, cannot coexist. It adds up to a beautiful, provocative musical.
The Hidden Sky
Written by Peter Foley and Kate Chisholm
Directed Kate Chisholm
Choreographed by Darren Lee
Cast: Victoria Huston-Elem (Ganil), Gordon Stanley (Lee), Ben Gunderson (Mede), Mark Mozingo (Lani), Nadine Malouf (Ganil's Double), Jesse Manocherian (Pinheart), Robbie Fowler (Varus), Rita Markova (Beloved), Joy Lynn Matthews (Yin), Jane R. Bunting, Hannah Jane McMurray, Lawrence E. Street, Jose Candelaria (ensemble)
Sets: Sarah Pearline
Costumes: Sidney Shannon
Sound: Asa F. Wember
Stage Manager: Joseph Fletcher
West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street, www.prospecttheater.org, www.thehiddensky.com, (212)-352-3101
From 1/30/10 through 2/28/10
Wednesday through Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday @ 1 p.m., Sunday @ 3 p.m.
Reviewed Deborah Blumenthal based on February 4, 2010 performance
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