Theater: The Strange Life of a Runaway Slave

The Skylight takes on Henze’s unique musical play about a 19th century Cuban slave.
December 31st, 2013 |
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El-Cimarron_rackHans Werner Henze’s El Cimarron creates quite a challenge for a performer: the musical theater work is written for a single baritone, who must not only perform every song in the show but employ falsetto, create animal sounds for ambiance and handle unsung dialogue. Oh, and this is no light-hearted frivolity; the play’s subject is a slave who runs away from his owners in 19th-century Cuba and eventually finds himself drawn into the Cuban War of Independence after his emancipation.

The story is based on the life of Esteban Montejo, who first told his story to Cuban writer Miguel Barnet; Montejo is a loner who found himself a part of some of Cuba’s most significant national moments. Henze created his adaptation in 1971. The German composer, who died last year, was known for drawing on 12-tone techniques, neoclassicism, jazz and popular music in his compositions.

El Cimarron is an adventurous work for the Skylight Music Theatre to take on, and its small scale makes it well-suited for the intimate Studio Theatre space. Eric McKeever, who performs the lead role, says the stage design (by scenic designer Lisa Schlenker) features a metal tree strewn with ropes that can be manipulated into all sorts of positions to suggest the setting of its 15 vignettes, each depicting a moment from Montejo’s life. It’s an abstract structure that mirrors Henze’s score, an atmospheric, almost-cinematic work written for McKeever’s only companions onstage, a guitarist, flautist and percussionist. Like McKeever, each is tasked with duties above and beyond the usual. Both the flautist and percussionist must play multiple instruments, and the guitarist’s part requires knowledge of several unique styles of guitar-picking.

The ensemble has an immediacy that a big orchestra couldn’t provide, McKeever says, which he expects to have a powerful effect on an audience. And he should know. McKeever has performed several shows at similarly- sized venues, including a production of La Boheme inside a bar with Opera Columbus and a recent run at New York’s intimate Center for Contemporary Art (where, incidentally, El Cimarron will travel after it closes in Milwaukee) as the title character in Matthew Harris’ The Mark of Cain. “I feel like audiences are absorbing opera in a new way,” he says, “stripped raw and extra emotional.”

Eric McKeever will play the title role in "El Cimarron" at the Skylight.

Eric McKeever will play the title role in “El Cimarron” at the Skylight.

With that intimacy comes a greater need for McKeever to get into the mind of his character, who he’ll be portraying for the first time here in Milwaukee. He says the first step to understanding Montejo was researching his life, both the period covered by El Cimarron and the rest of his 105 years. The thing he quickly grabbed onto was Montejo’s never-ending quest to be free – not just of slavery, but of anything confining, be it political oppression or personal relationships. “He never wanted to be part of history; he wanted to be left alone,” McKeever says.

It’s a very different story than the Skylight – or many other companies – has told before, but McKeever is confident it can find an audience. “It’s so personal, and yet it’s very global,” he says, adding that El Cimarron’s moments of abstractness make it all the better for people who like things off the beaten path – much like Montejo himself.

El Cimarron, directed by Eugenia Arsenis with music direction by Viswa Subbaraman, will run from Jan. 3 to 12 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $37.50 and performances are at 7:30 p.m. most nights with 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays. For more information or to order tickets, visit the Skylight’s online box office or call (414) 291-7800.

RepWoodySezPosterPREVIEW: Woody Sez at the Milwaukee Rep

The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret has become a home for tight chamber pieces focused on taking one performer or musical genre and getting the sound just right. Woody Sez is their latest work in that style. In spirit, it’s closer to last year’s Blues in the Night or Ring of Fire than just-closed Forever Plaid, offering a tribute to the acclaimed singer Woody Guthrie. The father of folk music as we know it today, Guthrie was a prolific creator of ballads and political commentaries best known for “This Land is Your Land.”

Woody Sez puts the icon’s works into the hands of four singer-musicians – David M. Lutken, David Finch, Leenya Rideout and Helen Jean Russell – who tell the story of Woody Guthrie’s life in his own words, with 15 different folk instruments. Two of those performers (Lutken and Russell), as well as director Nick Corley, were part of the original creative team that brought the show to life in Edinburgh in 2007, giving the Rep’s production quite the strong foundation to build upon. Woody Sez opens on Sunday, Jan. 5, and runs through March 9. Tickets begin at $40, and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or online.

"Who Killed Santa?" returns to the Underground Collaborative.

“Who Killed Santa?” returns to the Underground Collaborative.

PREVIEW: Who Killed Santa? at the Underground Collaborative

You didn’t think the holiday season was going to slip away without another appearance by Neil Haven’s holiday misfits, did you? The ne’er-do-wells of Who Killed Santa? may be performing after Christmas this time, but the set-up remains the same as ever: a holiday party at the North Pole, attended by Frosty, Tiny Tim, Rudolph and the Little Drummer Boy, goes awry when Santa brings along a sexy Little Drummer Girl – an action which may or may not lead to his eventual death by candy cane. By the end of the play, the audience will get the opportunity to select one of four possible murderers, but that isn’t even the best part. That would be getting to watch the holiday characters themselves, all blended, screwed-up versions of themselves with more dirty secrets than you could imagine, and mixing acting and puppetry. Who Killed Santa? opens Jan. 2 and runs through Jan. 12, with performances at the Underground Collaborative, located in the basement of Grand Avenue Mall. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online.

CLOSING THIS WEEK:

In Tandem Theatre: A Cudahy Caroler Christmas

Next Act Theatre: It’s a Wonderful Life Live Radio Show

ALSO ON STAGE:

Marcus Center: War Horse. The powerful, Tony-winning drama opens on Tuesday, January 7.

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One Response to “Theater: The Strange Life of a Runaway Slave”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    A comprehensive review on our current theatrical offerings in Milwaukee and El Cimarron seems better as a play than as a film. Thank you!

    [Reply]

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