New York Times and New Yorker: “Reflecting on War and Its Tentacles – ‘Soldier Songs’ at Pace University”

The New York premiere of “Soldier Songs” will be at the Schimmel Center this week as reported by the New York Times and the New Yorker. (Zac Ballard, left, and Christopher Burchett in “Soldier Songs” at Pace University’s Schimmel Center.)

The New York premiere of “Soldier Songs” will be at the Schimmel Center this week as reported by the New York Times and the New Yorker.

From the New York Times:

“Shock and awe” entered the mainstream vocabulary in 2003, when the term denoted the military doctrine of an overwhelming display of force that would be used in the invasion of Iraq. That the designation can have a markedly different meaning to the men and women who serve in the armed forces is a central point of “Soldier Songs,” a musical theater piece by the composer David T. Little. When the work had its New York premiere on Friday night at Pace University’s Schimmel Center for the Arts, shock and awe took on a new meaning: that of staging aesthetic.

Mr. Little completed “Soldier Songs” in 2006, basing its libretto on interviews he conducted with family members and schoolmates who served in World War II, Vietnam, the gulf wars and Afghanistan. In just under an hour the work depicts episodes from a nameless protagonist’s lifetime involvement with military conflict, from boyhood sandbox skirmishes and first-person-shooter video games to the terror of actual battle and the anguished loss that comes in its wake.

Mr. Little also alludes to mass-media saturation; a virtual-reality distancing between a soldier’s actions and their results; and jingoistic longing for military dominance. At several points he uses the actual recorded voices of veterans: notably, both female and male.

Nursed through several earlier incarnations by a loyal producer, Beth Morrison, “Soldier Songs” had its formal premiere in a staging directed by Yuval Sharon, introduced in 2011 at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven and jointly mounted in New York by Pace Presents and Prototype, the ambitious new festival Ms. Morrison helped to found.

Mr. Little’s gifts for setting text comfortably and effectively, and for writing music informed by Minimalism and rock but slavishly indebted to neither, are evident throughout the briskly paced work. But the concerns he conveys in “Soldier Songs” are seldom comfortable or pleasant, and Mr. Sharon’s production detonates them in vivid, sometimes harrowing ways.

Nearly all the action is concentrated in a patch of center stage, a sandbox with a seesaw, hidden at times by fabric walls that rise and fall. Monitors strewed around the set flash video-game images and patriotic slogans. An overhead screen and bare lighting rigs frame the stage, at one point producing blinding flashes and deafening outbursts that convey precisely shock and awe.

As the Soldier, the sole vocalist apart from isolated shouts from the instrumentalists, Christopher Burchett marched, paced and caromed around the set, producing a robust baritone, a childish falsetto and a power-mad bark by turns. As a stage presence he was fearless; stripped to his underwear for a scene of rabid battle preparation, he evoked superheroic posturing and vulnerability simultaneously.

Zac Ballard, a child actor, was a haunting foil as the Boy, serving as the Soldier’s playmate and mirror. Upstage in plain view, Todd Reynolds conducted Newspeak, Mr. Little’s instrumental ensemble, in a performance that aptly balanced precision, nuance and impact.

In program notes distributed on Friday, Mr. Little — who wrote about mixing politics and art for The New York Times — claimed that “Soldier Songs” was not meant to convey a specific point or message. Maybe so, but Mr. Sharon’s confrontational staging emphatically underscored implicit antiwar sentiments. At once seductive and repulsive, the presentation provided further evidence of Mr. Little’s fast-rising stock as a vital theatrical creator.

“Soldier Songs” is repeated Wednesday through Friday at the Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University; (212)352-3101, prototypefestival.org.

(A version of this review appeared in print on January 15, 2013, on page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Reflecting on War and Its Tentacles.)

Read the New York Times Music Review.

From the New Yorker:

The knockout première of “Dog Days” at Montclair’s Peak Performances series last fall made the young composer David T. Little into American opera’s newest star. To follow up, Morrison presents the New York stage première of this earlier, one-hour work, a rock-driven, multimedia one-man opera that follows a typical U.S. warrior from infancy to old age, with songs set to a libretto fashioned from interviews Little did with veterans of five conflicts. Christopher Burchett sings it; Todd Reynolds conducts the Newspeak ensemble. (Michael Schimmel Center, Pace University, 3 Spruce St. Jan. 16-18 at 7:30. For tickets and information about other festival shows, see prototypefestival.org.)

MEDIA ADVISORY: Monday, Feb 13 at 6 PM – PACE PERFORMING ARTS Presents “THE MASTERS SERIES,” Conversations with Leaders in the American Theater

Join us February 13th for an extraordinary evening bringing together visionaries from three of our most influential American theater institutions: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Lincoln Center Theater and The Public Theater.

PERFORMING ARTS at Pace University presents
“THE MASTERS SERIES”
Conversations with Leaders in the American Theater

Visionaries from three of our most influential American theater institutions discuss Promoting and Creating New Work:

  • Anne Cattaneo, Dramaturg of Lincoln Center Theater (including the new Broadway plays of the current season); Creator and Head of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors’ Lab.
  • Joseph V. Melillo, Executive Producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), responsible for institutional artistic direction.
  • Maria Goyanes, Associate Producer of The Public Theater (The Public LAB).

 WHEN:           Monday, February 13, 2012 at 6:00 p.m.

WHERE:         Pace University, Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, 3 Spruce Street, New York, NY.  Directions: http://bit.ly/qxH0g3

COST/RSVP: Free admission, open seating. Reservations: PerformingArtsPress@pace.edu 

PRESS RSVP: Samuella Becker, Pace Media Relations, sbecker2@pace.edu; 212-346-1637 or 917-734-5172

MODERATOR:  Cosmin Chivu, Winner of the 2012 Drama League’s New Directors/New Works Project; Head of Directing at the Performing Arts at Pace University

ABOUT THE PERFORMING ARTS MASTERS SERIES: The Performing Arts at Pace University is dedicated to providing a new generation of students/artists with the opportunity of interacting with well-established, outstanding professionals that have developed new voices and ideas. The goal is to reinvigorate the theater’s ancient role as a public forum by focusing on the social and cultural context for the works of the American Theatre of today and tomorrow.  The evening’s guests engage in discussions of their unique practices and bodies of work, followed by a Q&A session with Pace BFA and BA Performing Arts students. 

COMPLETE BIOS:

ANNE CATTANEO is the dramaturg of Lincoln Center Theater and the creator and head of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors’ Lab.  A three term past president of Literary Mangers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, she is the recipient of LMDA’s first Lessing Award for lifetime achievement of dramaturgy. She has worked widely as a dramaturg on classical plays with directors such as Bartlett Sher, Robert Wilson, Adrian Hall, Jack O’Brien, Robert Falls, Mark Lamos and JoAnne Akalaitis.  As the director of the Playworks Program at the Phoenix Theater during the late 1970’s, she commissioned and developed plays by Wendy Wasserstein (ISN’T IT ROMANTIC) Mustapha Matura (MEETINGS) and Christopher Durang (BEYOND THERAPY). For the Acting Company, she created two projects: ORCHARDS (published by Knopf and Broadway Play Publishing) which presented seven Chekhov stories adapted for the stage by Maria Irene Fornes, Spalding Gray, John Guare, David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Weller and Samm-Art Williams, and LOVE’S FIRE (published by William Morrow) responses to Shakespeare sonnets by Eric Bogosian, William Finn, John Guare, Tony Kushner, Marsha Norman, Ntozake Shange and Wendy Wasserstein. Her own translations of 20th Century German playwrights include Brecht’s GALILEO (Goodman Theater 1986 starring Brian Dennehy) and Botho Strauss’ BIG AND LITTLE (Phoenix production starring Barbara Barrie, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) She is currently on the faculty at Juilliard. In July 2011, she was awarded the Margo Jones Medal given annually to a “citizen of the theater who has demonstrated a significant impact, understanding and affirmation of the craft of playwriting, with a lifetime commitment to the encouragement of the living theatre everywhere.”

JOSEPH V. MELILLO, BAM executive producer since 1999, is responsible for the artistic direction of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). In the years that he has held this role, BAM has enjoyed increases in both programming and audience attendance in its Harvey Lichtenstein Theater, Howard Gilman Opera House, Rose Cinemas, and BAMcafé. Prior to his current position, Melillo served as BAM’s producing director, following a six-year tenure as founding director of the Next Wave Festival. Over the years, Melillo has fostered the work of emerging and established artists and forged dynamic artistic partnerships. One such partnership is The Bridge Project—a three-year series of international theater engagements featuring a trans-Atlantic company of actors directed by Sam Mendes and produced by BAM, The Old Vic (under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey), and Neal Street (headed by Mendes and partner Caro Newling). The Bridge Project has furthered the global reach of BAM’s mission, with engagements in the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, The Netherlands, Spain, France, and Germany. BAM will soon expand its campus with the addition of the Richard B. Fisher Building, featuring an intimate and flexible new performance space, and adding a third stage for BAM’s renowned Next Wave Festival. Joseph Melillo was named a Chevalier (1999) and an Officier (2004) de L’ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France. Also in 2004, he was awarded an honorary OBE for his outstanding commitment to British performing arts in America. In 2007, Melillo was appointed Knight of the Royal Order of the Polar Star, in recognition of his role in solidifying ties between the performing arts communities of Sweden and the United States. Melillo has served on the faculty of the Brooklyn College Graduate Program in Arts Management and on the boards of directors for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and En Garde Arts. He was a panelist for the National Endowment of the Arts Dance Program and the New York State Council on the Arts, and served as Multidisciplinary Panel Chair of the Pew Fellowships in the Arts’ 2003 and 2007 Awards. Melillo is a lecturer at colleges and universities nationally and internationally. He currently serves as a member of the International Arts Advisory Committee for the Wexner Prize (Wexner Center for the Arts). Melillo earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and theater at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut and a Masters of Fine Arts in speech and drama at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He is currently celebrating his 27th year at BAM.

MARIA GOYANES  joined the staff of The Public Theater in August 2004 as an Artistic Associate, and was promoted to the Director of Special Projects before landing her current role Associate Producer. Previously as the Director of Special Projects she has worked on the development and cultivation of new plays and initiatives to support the work of a wide range of artists.  She helped launch the Public LAB, a series that brings stripped down productions to audiences for only $10, working with Adrienne Kennedy, the Civilians, Naomi Wallace, Suzan- Lori Parks, Roger Guenveur Smith, and many others. Both The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman transferred to the Public’s mainstage subscription season after successful runs in Public Lab. She spearheaded the Suzan-Lori Parks’ yearlong 365 Days/365 Plays festival for NYC, working with 70 theater companies and over a thousand artists. When not at the Public, she is the Executive Producer of Obie- award winning 13P (13 Playwrights, Inc.), a 13 play project founded with a collective of writers that includes Sarah Ruhl, Young Jean Lee, Anne Washburn, Lucy Thurber, and Sheila Callaghan.   She was the recipient of the Josephine Abady Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women.  Previously, she was the Associate Producer at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence RI.  She is a first generation American (spanish and dominican – spininican) and hails from Jamaica, Queens.

COSMIN CHIVU (Moderator) has directed over fifty professional and university productions in America, Austria, England, Germany, Greece, and Romania. He is a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, NYC, a fellow of the Jack O’Brien Lab at the Old Globe, and a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. He is the winner of the 2012 Drama League’s New Directors New Works Project. Chivu is currently running the Directing program and teaches theater courses in the Department of Performing Arts at Pace University’s New York City. In recent months he also taught Master Classes on Improvisation, Directing styles, and European Drama at the Tisch School at NYU, the University of Hawaii, and T.O.C. Athens, Greece. He is actively involved in developing courses in translating contemporary European plays for an American audience and has been developing new plays in the Actors Studio’s Playwriting Directing workshop. He holds a Masters in Theatre Directing from the Actors Studio Drama School, New School University, NYC and a BA in Acting from the G. Enescu Art Academy, Romania.