Friday, April 23, 2010

A Soldier’s Tale, Cleveland Play House

(Robert Ellis, center, as the General)

Sometimes, a hearty stew tastes like mush because all the individual flavors have melded together into one incomprehensible blob. Then again, there's zesty fare like A Soldier’s Tale, now part of Fusion Fest at the Cleveland Play House.

Employing a challenging and intriguing composition by Igor Stravinsky, based on a Russian folk tale, a septet from the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Tito Munoz sets the musical stage. Then, four actors share the Baxter Theater space with dancers from GroundWorks DanceTheater as they fashion a compelling story of a real soldier from World War II, Private Eddie Slovik, who was executed for desertion.

This historic collaboration of three honored local arts institutions is reason enough to see this remarkable production. But there are even more delights in store than superbly rendered music and dance. The libretto written by Kurt Vonnegut is wonderfully playful, featuring an impish use of rhyme, but is also brutal and often profane in places. This is more than appropriate for a wartime scenario that also involves a “ballet with lice” as the dancers and actors, in uniform, itch as they hoof.

Under the direction of Seth Gordon, this engrossing mélange also leverages some interesting and amusing projections, including a WWII pin-up gal and a violin-playing devil (a reference to the original tale of a soldier who loses his soul to the devil in trade for his fiddle).

Justin Tatum is engaging as Slovik, but almost pushes his character’s devil-may-care goofiness a bit too far (after all, Slovik didn't want to die and eventually pleaded for clemency, a fact not conveyed in this piece). Robert Ellis is nicely conflicted as the General and Lindsay Iuen, steams things up as a sexy Red Cross gal.

In the preceding work, Catch and Release by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dancers (Amy Miller, Felise Bagley, Kelly Brunk, Damien Highfield and Sarah Perrett) perform to music that in many ways echoes Stravinsky’s piece. Ranging from lighthearted—there are faint flickers of Gershwin now and then—to more somber, this 20-minute composition is accompanied by lighting effects and videos thrown onto the dance floor.

As the only American soldier to be executed by the U.S. military since the Civil War, Slovik has been condemned for cowardice by some and honored for his courage by others. And so goes humanity’s eternal struggle with just one of the many horrors of war.

A Soldier’s Tale

Through April 25 as part of Fusion Fest,

at the Cleveland Play House,

8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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