A frustratingly rough-edged, but fascinating tale of a 19th century musical legend.
by Joel Benjamin
The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre’s The New World Symphony: Dvorák in America is Vit Horejš’s noble, but ultimately dramatically awkward attempt to conflate the story of Antonin Dvorák’s residence in America (1892-1895) with a heavy handed plea for inclusion in the arts and in society.
Antonin Dvorák arrived in New York City in 1892, invited by his patron, Jeannette Thurber to lead the new American Conservatory of Music. He invited several African-Americans to be students, including Harry Burleigh and Will Marion Cook who were influential on later generations of black musicians. He made history and, considering the tenor of his time, many enemies.
He not only made his mark on the New York scene, but managed to travel about the United States, eventually settling in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, dubbed “little Bohemia.” During this period he composed several of his most famous works which incorporated musical bits and pieces he absorbed in his travels.
Most particularly, he believed that classical music in the United States would be based strongly on ideas generated in its ethnic communities, such as the music of African-Americans (gospel, spirituals, etc.) and the spare, rhythmic music of the Native Americans. He heard a great deal of these kinds of music and, in fact, famously used a spiritual-like melody in his “New World Symphony,” a tune that later became the emotionally rich “Going Home.” His “Humoresque” and “American String Quartet” also came from this period.
The plot of The New World Symphony is convoluted, complicated by political tangents and purposely jarring anachronistic language. It was difficult to follow the almost surrealistic ramblings of the main characters, which included the Maestro, his beloved wife, equally beloved sister-in-law, the two above-mentioned African-American composers, a Lakota Indian and Nellie Bly (a famous journalist of the period). Sadly, these valiant and talented performers appeared to be a tad under-rehearsed. The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre productions often have a pleasant, slapdash, off-the-cuff ambiance, but the actors too often seemed lost.
The most ironic element of the evening is that for a company using the word “marionette” in its name, there were relatively few moments of puppetry. The occasional few there mostly represented groups of people, such as choruses and parades. The marionettes were, however, beautifully made and wittily used.
Only the JBL Trio—James Brandon Lewis (saxophone), Luke Stewart (bass) and Warren Trae Crudup III (percussion)—provided constancy, playing wittily arranged bits of Dvorák’s music as well as entertaining jazz themes.
Tom Lee’s set turned the Ellen Stewart Theatre into a flexible environment for Mr. Horejš’s meandering libretto, full of nooks and crannies, moveable bits of furniture and pathways through all the turmoil. Federico Restrepo’s lighting helped make sense of the set and the plot, while Theresa Linnihan’s costumes made good—if sometimes bizarre—stabs at period and ethnic styles.
The actors, who played numerous roles were: Deborah Beshaw-Farrell, Michelle Beshaw, Harlem-Lafayette, Valois Marie Mickens, John Scott-Richardson, Mr. Horejš, Theresa Linnihan and Ben Watts (as Dvorák).
The New World Symphony: Dvorák in America has much to say about music, American history and entitlements. Perhaps it will lose its rough edges during its short run at LaMama.
The New World Symphony: Dvorák in America. By the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. Through March 27 at LaMaMa E.T.C./Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th Street, between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery) www.lamama.org or www.czechmarionettes.org. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Photos by Remy S.