Thursday, November 16, 2006

More about “La Belle Epoque”

“La Belle Epoque: 100 years ago in Colorado Springs” is very much a work in progress — but one that’s well worth further development.

Last week’s premier of Judeth Shay Burns’ and David Sckolnik’s theater piece at the Colorado Springs School’s Louisa Center moved fitfully at times, but the theatrical device of using a fictional singer to create a slice of life in 1907 is intriguing, and co-writers Sckolnik and Burns made the most of its possibilities.

The balance of talking and singing was excellent, but the script needs focusing: Simply mentioning historical figures isn’t the same as telling us something meaningful about them. And the stream-of-memory format amplifies the usual theatrical challenge of exposition. Every time a new character is introduced, the program comes to a brief halt.

Yet the piece already showed glimmers of brilliance. It creates a vivid impression of the period — not as sepia-toned nostalgia, but as something every bit as intense and alive as the present always is, and yet which we tend to imagine the past somehow was not.

Having a performer of Burns' ability is essential to the piece's success. Besides being a fine singer, she’s a disarmingly charming performer — I feel like a jerk just mentioning that her diction is occasionally pinched, as when a final “amour” came out as “a moo — and she’s a good enough actress to pull off the non-singing sections once she’s performed the piece a few more times.

The program was also my introduction to Mary Beth Shaffer, who was Burns’ accompanist. As a pianist, I’m sufficiently jealous to want to seek out flaws in other local pianists, but Shaffer won me over in minutes with her musicality, imagination and comprehensive technique.

Sckolnik’s theatrical innovation bumped up against one of his other innovations — the presentation of art in the Lousa Center’s lobby. As lovely as some of Ray Shaw’s wildlife paintings are — and they are distinctly uneven, some masterful and some almost naive — they added nothing to the atmosphere or setting. There are plenty of local neo-Impressionist landscape painters whose work would have been a better fit.


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