A Little Fright Music – Stories on Stage and Colorado Chamber Players
A preview by Betsy Schwarm
Interdisciplinary arts: certainly some of the most powerful and compelling performing arts experiences are exactly that. Whether it’s opera, combining voices and instruments with sets, props, costumes, and story-telling, or an orchestra providing live performance of the soundtrack to a beloved film, in both cases, it’s entertainment that draws upon multiple forms of artistic expression.
That’s exactly what Stories on Stage, now in its 19th season, sets out to do. Its actors, including some of the most prominent names in the Denver theater community, take the stage alone to read (and characterize) short stories and other dramatic literature. The sets, props, and costumes are generally absent, but the story-telling is there in spoken word form. Artistic director Anthony Powell says, “The short story as an art form is really incredible: such richness of possibility. Lately, we’ve been using very current stories, including one from a recent issue of The New Yorker, but this October program goes back to the classics.”
In this case, it’s the classics of both literature and music. For October 2019, Stories on Stage is partnering with the Colorado Chamber Players and harpist Emily Levin for a program called “A Little Fright Music. Inspiration came from Conte fantastique (1924) by French composer André Caplet (1878 – 1925), an instrumental telling of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death (1842) with the slender musical forces of string quartet with harp. Originally, Caplet did not insist that the story be read aloud to the music. However, the story fits the music impressively well, particularly when it’s read by a performer with a keen sense of pacing.
Actor Mare Trevathan, who’ll take the stage for performances October 19 and 20, has collaborated with the Colorado Chamber Players before on Caplet’s telling of Poe. Trevathan notes, “The story isn’t written in the first person. There’s very little dialog and a lot of narration, which gives it a bit of formality. Still, I can color that narrator’s voice, too, and the music raises the emotional stakes.” Colorado Chamber Players executive director and violist Barbara Hamilton Primus agrees: “Musically, the scenes go by in exactly the right order, showing us the castle, the guests, the ghost, and so on…In all, it’s a morality tale, that even wealthy and determined Prospero and his friends cannot escape death. The story seems just as relevant today.”
Trevathan says she’s been impressed at how well the combination of spoken words and music works in live performance: “The musicians can sustain a note here or there to underscore the action.” However, she adds that the audience, too, is part of the live experience: “They really influence the details. Leaning forward, gasping at particularly dramatic moments: it makes a difference to how we feel about the work and how the next moment may be shaped. The best-laid plans from rehearsals may still shift in performance.”
The Caplet/Poe presentation was the initial inspiration of this fall’s Stories on Stage/Colorado Chamber Players collaboration. However, given that Masque of the Red Death is a creepy tale and that it’s the season of Halloween and the Day of the Dead, Powell wanted something more, not only to fill out the program, but also to complement the Poe and the season itself. Ideally, he says he wanted “something lighter to balance the Poe.” His gaze fell upon PG Wodehouse’s short story Honeysuckle Cottage (1925). The title may sound winsome, but the cottage is haunted by ghosts of the previous resident’s sentimental romance novels, a fact that the current resident, a writer of gritty mysteries, finds both startling and unsettling.
The program also contains music without words, music still fitting with the seasonal theme. Harpist Levin will have the stage to herself, briefly, for another Caplet composition, his Divertissement a l’espagnole, rather more magical in mood than terrifying, and, as the title implies, flavored here and there with the rhythms of Spanish dance. Another French viewpoint appears with Danse macabre (1875) by Caplet’s countryman and contemporary, Camille Saint-Säens (1835 – 1921). That work was inspired by Jean Lahor’s poem concerning a vision of the devil playing violin in a graveyard and inspiring skeletons to leap from their graves to dance. Saint-Saëns’ work is usually heard with solo violin and orchestra, though this performance by the Colorado Chamber Players will feature an arrangement for harp and string quartet by violinist Paul Primus. From the opening staccato passages through the increasingly frenetic dance, then ultimately the rooster’s call and closing phrases, all of Saint-Saëns’ textures are still there, even with reduced forces. No narration is needed: the music speaks for itself.
To evoke this atmosphere, which Powell calls “cloyingly terrifying,” he enlisted the talents of actor John Jurcheck. Rather than having a single composition underscore the entire short story, musical excerpts will appear here and there, especially in transitional passages. The Colorado Chamber Players will be providing bits of Bártók’s String Quartet no. 4, passages of Mozart’s String Quartet no. 14 in G major, K. 387, and music by Erwin Schulhoff (1894 – 1942), each selection chosen for its energy and emotional coloring, as well as its ability to fit with the tale it inhabits. Jurcheck’s task, according to Powell, will be “to move on from those musical moods and connect them to where he’s going next.”
Stories on Stage performances has sometimes included music as accompaniment to stories, though not music with its own story to tell. Artistic director Powell says he trusts his audience to be intrigued by the organization’s step “out of the box,” and also feels that his actors benefit from the experience: “Ordinarily, it’s just you and a music stand for twenty minutes. You can work the audience: they become your scene partner… But the fact that this time we have live chamber music, too, is a way to make the story that much more vivid.”
“A Little Fright Music” will be presented October 19 and 20 in Boulder and Denver. Saturday, October 19 sees the performers at Boulder’s Nomad Playhouse for a 730pm curtain. Sunday, October 20, it’s Su Teatro in Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District for two performances, one at 130pm, the other at 630pm. Tickets are available at the websites for both Stories on Stage and the Colorado Chamber Players. Words and music on haunting themes: it’s “A Little Fright Music.”