Denton — The word mimesis kept running though my mind on Feb. 25 as I watched a marvelous production of Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’ hybrid opera-musical Street Scene, which has a book by Elmer Rice, based on his play of the same name. That word means that art is a representation or imitation of the real world and Weill’s 1946 opera comes right out of today’s headlines. You could call it a #metoo cri de cœur of a drama in which spousal abuse — that everyone in the neighborhood knows about — ends in a double murder.
When the University of North Texas College of Music decided to produce Street Scene, the epidemic of such crimes had not yet overflowed on to the front page of every newspaper in the country — although these offenses were common occurrences. Little did they know that the subject of the opera would soon lead to a tidal wave of revelations. Weill’s headline would be “Husband murders wife and lover in New York tenement.”
Scenic designer Donna Marquet cleverly built the shabby three-story apartment building using cheap wooden pallets that once held something else and are usually discarded, much like the residents of this rickety building. Thus, the walls are not solid; characters can see and hear right through them, much like the thin walls of cheap construction. Privacy is practically non-existent and the sweltering summer heat means that you can’t even close your windows.
Stage director Jonathan Eaton placed the flawed characters of the drama closely together into this bubbling human stew pot. Every stage movement had a purpose, every relationship clear and every character believably drawn. He was especially good with the crowd scenes as his characters represent the ethnic and religious mix of New York City trying to accommodate each other when uneasily living in such close accommodations. Once again, today’s headlines about the battle on the integration of immigration joins the mimesis on the stage.
This was such a gripping performance, driven by conductor Stephen Dubbery’s raw propelling of Weill’s jazz-infused version of classical music, that another word seemed equally appropriate: anti-mimesis. That, of course, means the opposite, that life imitates art.
Would we see Street Scene differently without today’s inescapable national disgrace of the abuse of women and the denigration of immigrants? Probably not—but it just happens to be especially timely right now. Regardless, this show made for an intense afternoon of theater, a production so excellent that it could grace the stage of many regional theaters — and that includes the talented cast.
As the battered and later murdered wife Anna, Kristen Williams brought warmth to this difficult role. Her interaction with her violent husband, realistically played by a truly frightening Hastings Reeves, leaves her blameless, although not innocent, as does her protection and love for her daughter Rose, who is in need of all the love she can gather.
As Rose, Alexandra Johnson played her as a confused and conflicted, but independent, young woman newly graduated from high school and wanting to take charge of her own future. Her neighbor Sam, played earnestly by Max Ary, is crazy in love with her. She is not so sure about him and besides, although not mentioned, he comes from an orthodox Jewish family. Vineel Mahal, gave a wonderful turn as Sam’s father, Abraham Kaplan.
Anthony Potts is believable as Steve Sankey, the man Anna turns to in her desperation for a little affection. The three gossiping women are colorfully played by Kjersti Cooper as Mrs. Fiorentino, Jenny Ivanovna as Mrs. Olsen and Natasha Wroblewski as Mrs. Jones.
Outstanding musical numbers include Rose’s cavatina, about how she will always choose true love over showy promises (“What Good Would the Moon Be?”), Sam’s paean to loneliness (“Lonely House”), Frank’s wanting a return to a world he understood (“Let Things be Like They Always Was”) and Anna’s talk with Willie, her rebellious son (“A Boy Like You”).
The show was double cast and I only saw the final performance, but I can assume that both casts were equally strong. I hope to catch more from UNT’s opera studies program.