- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

Assisted by the University of Maryland’s Faculty String Quartet and a new-music ensemble that calls itself Eighth Blackbird, Blair Thomas & Co., a small troupe dedicated to the production values of puppet theater, staged a surreal evening of expressionistic commedia dell’arte at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Mr. Thomas’ current production — which wrapped its three-day engagement yesterday — can be best described as decadent cabaret involving puppets, poetry, and music. The program included “Buster Keaton’s Stroll,” “#27 the Blackbird,” and a full-length production of Arnold Schoenberg’s compellingly weird “Pierre Lunaire,” Op. 21.

The initial playlet, molded around unworldly poetry penned by Federico Garcia Lorca, was a two-dimensional puppet show set in a puppet theater built and operated by Mr. Blair himself. While reading snippets of poetry and operating his flimsy puppets that resembled Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, Mr. Blair accompanied the action with off-key toots on a spot-welded Dali-esque tuba of his own creation .

Saturday’s second stanza began with selected verses from Wallace Stevens’ equally strange poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Here, Mr. Blair used a series of choreographed, see-through scrims of carefully constructed sequential images and associated verses hand painted on Japanese art-paper. These were cleverly manipulated to the music of Ben Johnston’s “String Quartet No. 4,” which employs the hymn “Amazing Grace” to begin a series of microtonal essays that were delivered with exquisite care by Maryland’s Faculty String Quartet.

The evening’s centerpiece, however, was a full-dress, mind-altering adaptation of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.” This 1912 work marked the initial stage of the composer’s abandonment of tonality as he explored a new music based on his radical 12-tone or “atonal” scale.

Savagely debated in the music world after its premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” is an early multimedia pastiche of instrumental music and mime theater based on poetry by the Frenchman Albert Giraud as translated into the German by Otto Erich Hartleben. The text consists of 21 extraordinarily violent poems in rondeaux form, characterized by its built-in refrains and tight rhyme schemes that read like the mad ravings of a cinematic mad slasher. Schoenberg set the poetry to be delivered in “Sprechstimme” — an aurally painful yoking of swooping notes and declamatory speech against the backdrop of his eerie, foreboding new music performed here by the members of Eighth Blackbird. In Mr. Blair’s concept, calligraphed sheets bearing the English translations of each verse were cranked across the stage by the ensemble, while stark imagery were rotated behind. Everyone was a player in this drama of the mind, with Eighth Blackbird attired in bizarre, mad hats and starched cocoons of white.

Meanwhile, Lucy Shelton — clad in billowing widow’s weeds accentuated in blood red — declaimed each verse as the “poet.” All were shadowed by a life-size puppet Pierrot, historically a comic figure manipulated by various cast members. But this Pierrot is a menacing clown, perhaps the soul of a tortured artist in Schoenberg’s grotesque vision.

The over-all impression created by Mr. Blair and his company was no doubt precisely what he intended; a thoughtful, museum-quality repurposing of the kind of dark cabaret Schoenberg clearly contemplated. The choreography was tightly wound, the musicianship of Eighth Blackbird was superb, and Miss Shelton’s poetic declamations and keenings were mesmerizing if a bit histrionic for contemporary audiences.

It is hard to characterize Mr. Blair’s live, musical installation. It’s a mental travelogue blending traditional commedia dell’arte, medieval puppet shows, Cirque du Soleil mime, and atonal or quarter-tonal music, then wrapping them into a despairing expressionist tableaux of existential illogic, brutality, and black comedy.

What Mr. Blair does, he does well and at times quite playfully. But the odd and perhaps unintended effect of this production is to lay bare the cold heart of postmodernist relativism and what was once-known as the avant-garde. He fossilizes both into a curiously life-like diorama depicting ancient intellectual constructs —whose time is long since past, but whose champions still regard them as cutting-edge.

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