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Theatre in Review: Under the Radar, Part II (Public Theater)

Top: Alicia Hall Moran. Photo: Joseph P Alvarado, edited by Lance Cain. Bottom: Whitney White, Peter Mark Kendall. Photo: Melissa Bunni Elian.

The latest edition of the Under the Radar Festival, the celebration of avant-garde performance, features two attractions based on music-making, each of which produces strikingly different results.

In the intriguing, revelatory the motown project, Alicia Hall Moran, a mezzo-soprano whose vocal style fuss jazz and classical technique, offers entirely unique renditions of such hits as "Heatwave," "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch," and "Do You Know Where You're Going To?" Slowing down the songs' tempi and de-emphasizing their rhythmic underpinnings, she turns them into pained confessionals of desire and loss. Not every tune can withstand the power of her creative gaze; for example, the frothy "Please Mr. Postman," all but withers and dies. But, more often, the songs acquire entirely new and haunting qualities, especially when bits of Mozart and Purcell are worked into Moran's performances.

And, really, why not? The best of the Motown numbers are classics that belong in the Great American Songbook, and many an artist will find fresh interpretative values in them. By treating them as art songs, Moran lifts them up; conversely, in a classical music world that remains predominantly white, hers is a much-needed voice. The sounds she produces are seductive, even hypnotic; behind her sense of classical formality, turbulent, even profound, emotions smolder. She is accompanied by a cadre of gifted collaborators that includes her husband, the jazz pianist Jason Moran; the guitarist Thomas Flippin, and the baritone Steven Herring. Some the piece's camerawork is a little fuzzy and the editing sometimes bizarrely abrupt. But Moran -- regal, commanding, and gifted with a voice of unearthly beauty -- is a wonder. Experienced during this most tumultuous of weeks, the motown project felt like a much-needed oasis of civilization. More, please, from this distinctive artist. Capsule is about friends in a time of plague and upheaval; it has been created by Whitney White and Peter Mark Kendall who are, apparently, playing themselves or version of themselves, using biographical details from their lives. For example, White is black is of Jamaican ancestry, while Kendall, who was born in Baltimore, comes from a family of South African emigrants. Make of that what you will; the piece hints at a pained racial undertone in their relationship without really exploring it.

Not that it explores much of anything. Capsule unfolds across the dread year 2020, with occasional diary-like commentary that notes, for example, the murder of George Floyd and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- all of which (and more), Kendall and White feel really, really bad about. To deal with their sorrows, they take walks in the country, ride on swings, share meals, chat on the phone, and perform songs written by them. The latter so thoroughly mine a vein of downbeat indie rock that it is virtually impossible to tell them apart. One hardly expects this terrible year to yield a bunch of upbeat toe-tappers, but even the best lyrics ("Everything's not fine/Everything's not fine/We don't have good times/We don't have good times") barely rise to the level of banality.

Given the air of role-playing, the use of different film stocks (including some grainy black and white footage), and the constant intercutting between various sequences, there are moments when Capsule appears to be an homage to mid-60s Jean-Luc Godard. There are occasional flashes of insight, as when Kendall mournfully notes his mother's comment that she and her husband brought their children to the US to escape apartheid, only to encounter it here, too. But the focus is entirely on the performers' angst, not the tumultuous events that are reshaping the nation. I have no doubt that they have suffered mightily this year; they would be sociopathic if they hadn't. But must they frame their sorrows so calculatedly? Capsule sadly has the effect of boiling down upheaval of 2020 into the equivalent of a cool music video or a chic magazine layout. It is a most unfortunate piece of work. Watching it, I couldn't stop thinking of a line from the Act I finale of Dreamgirls: "Effie, we all got pain." --David Barbour

(15 January 2021)

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