Los Angeles Theater Review: THE WOMAN IN THE WALL (Masonic Lodge in Culver City)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on March 28, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


In The Woman in the Wall, Overtone Industries reinvents a tradition of medieval mystery plays in a stunning new chamber opera about a 14th century Anchoress, voluntarily confined for a life of solitary religious study. This entrancing The Woman in the Wall Photo 2performance takes the audience on a spiritual journey that illuminates the power of women despite intensely limiting social circumstances.

Kathleen Cramer’s episodic libretto elaborates on seven days in the life of an Anchoress named Marianna. As she embarks on an inward quest for spiritual understanding, Marianna is walled into a cell and visited by the seven virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love. Marianna opens one window to the world and employs her newfound knowledge to advise peasants and kings alike.

O-Lan Jones’ shimmering score carries the evening’s entertainment in a flow of shifting vocal forces and orchestrations. The ever-remarkable David O conducts a skilled ensemble of ten instrumentalists, twelve principal singers and the Angel City Chorale (led by Sue Fink), whose vocal prowess and crisp articulation are to be commended. Although male cast members such as Matthew McCray (Priest/Herald) and Eric Castro (King) have an undeniably powerful presence, the women – led by Gretchen Johnson as Marianna – rightly dominate the stage and the score.

In a seeming paradox, Marianna’s confinement is what enables her to advise townspeople and even royalty with an authority rarely granted a woman of the 14th century. Gretchen Johnson’s pitch-perfect voice and rich vibrato expand the character of Marianna far beyond the four walls of her cell. She vocally commands the stage, grappling with her own imprisonment and the ethics of established traditions in spectacular arias.

Performed in a lavish meeting room of the Masonic Lodge in Culver City, The Woman in the Wall resonates as a ritual experience. O-Lan Jones’ minimalist direction encourages the audience to immerse themselves in the ceremonial environment. Actors cross the shining checkerboard floor with slow and meditative movements, stylized liturgical gestures. Although the pace is restrained, the opera rarely drags.

The Woman in the Wall concludes in a magnificent tableau vivant of Marianna as a saint. With golden cords emanating from her body, the woman in the wall appears both tied down and radiant, both confined and free. These golden strands are also reminiscent of the strings of a harp – of the music that aids Marianna’s navigation between her physical confinement and her spiritual authority.

On a more intimate scale, The Woman in the Wall continues in the tradition of Overtone Industries’ fantastically inventive Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands. Overtone Industries has a penchant for transforming a simple story into a mystical and musical mythology, creating an enduring experience that balances beauty of landscapes and soundscapes with thought-provoking theater. I look forward to seeing what tale they spin next.

photos by Emily Brooke Sandor
photo of Angel City Chorale by Lina Weiss

The Woman in the Wall
Overtone Industries
Culver City Masonic Lodge
scheduled to end on March 31, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.overtoneindustries.org

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