Against the Grain’s Seven Deadly Sins

Last night we headed out to that part of the formerly industrial west end much beloved by tiny arts organizations to see a thoroughly eclectic series of performances by Against the Grain Theatre. This is the company that previously brought us a genuinely Bohemian La Bohème at the Tranzac club. Last night’s show cunningly built on that success by using the undoubted crowd pleaser, Lindsay Boa-Sutherland, to headline a performance of Weill’s Die sieben Todsüngen. Since the orchestra was replaced by two superbly virtuosic pianists in Daniel Pesca and AtG music director Christopher Mokrzewski it made sense to include two fiendish pieces for two pianos; Steve Reich’s Piano Phase and John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. The program was balanced up for “virtue” with Britten’s Abraham and Isaac. So, a thoroughly eclectic but oddly coherent line up.

The venue was Gallery 345 which is a former industrial space rather further west than I normally venture. It provided an L shape performance space which meant that maybe a quarter of the audience was looking side on (including us) and a good portion of the ones who were front on woud have a had a less than ideal view because that leg was deep and narrow and not raked. Still, the acoustics were decent enough.

First up was the Reich piece. This is minimalism with a lower case “m”; relentless and curiously compelling. It was clearly very much to the tatse of the pianists who seemed to be having a great time and made a pretty good case for the piece. It was also accompanied by two dancers; Matjash Mrozewski (quite possibly an anagram but no relation) and Kate Franklin. I’m no modern dance expert but I enjoyed what they did and thought it helped bring the piece to life.

Next up was the Britten. It’s an Anglicanized up version of the Old testament story and a wee bit saccharine. Definitely not my favourite Britten and much weaker than the composer’s later treatment of the same idea in the War Requiem. Still, no complaints about the totally committed performances by tenor Christopher Mayell (tall sopranos here’s your man!) and mezzo Erin Lawson. Besides singing well they made good use of the space to tell the story in what was a somewhat less than “semi” staged performance.

The first half closed out with our two intrepid pianists back for John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. This is a madly virtuosic work that, in typical Adams style, builds up in a series of waves of sound, ebbing and flowing and finally crashing all over the audience. Somehow tectonic language seems more apt than musical when discussing Adams. His music is such a mixture of the cerebral and the visceral. Great fun anyway.

After the interval we got the Lindsay show. Lindsay Sutherland Boal is an opera singer turned cabaret artist who specializes in Kurt weill. Seven Deadly Sins is a perfect vehicle for her. She’s lovely and infectious and has great German diction (That said, I think given the space it might have been better to have gone with English. It was awkward to read the projected surtitles and Brecht translates well). She was ably supported by dancer Tina Fushell as Anna II and a campy but strongly characterized quartet of male singers (Giles Tomkins, Graham Thomson, Derek Kwan and Andrew Love) as Anna’s grasping family and chorus. This was a really good example of how to put on a show with the minimum of staging resources and the maximum of charisma. If this ever collided with a metropolitan Opera production the universe would likely vanish in the ensuing conflagration.

A great night of music and drama aside this also reminded me of what a great village I live in. There were maybe a 100-120 people at the show last night and I was quite shocked by how many of them I knew and by the support for an endeavour like this across the music theatre community. There is so much talent in this city and only a fraction of it gets seen on the big stages. We do also need the Against the Grains and the Opera Erraticas to show what can be done with enthusiasm and skill and enterprise even when the cash is lacking.

Next up for Against the Grain will be a staged performance of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in a proper (and more accessible) theatre; the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse. That runs May 24-27.

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