Shelter; music by Juliet Palmer, libretto by Julie Salverson, has been ten years in the making. It premiered in Edmonton a couple of years ago, finally, got its Toronto premiere at the Berkeley Street Theatre last night under the auspices of Tapestry. It’s a complex and eclectic piece dealing with what it is to be human in a nuclear age. There are two parallel plots which intersect in a way that makes dramatic sense but violate conventional notions of synchronicity. This is, after all, a piece rooted in post Einsteinian physics. The first concerns Austrian Jewish physicist Lise Meintner, one of the discoverers of nuclear fission. She has been forced into exile by the Anschluss and is seen here refusing to work on the Manhattan project. The second plot concerns a highly stereotypical 1950s American couple Thomas and Claire who meet at a social, marry and quickly produce a child; Hope. Their “American Dream” is shattered when it turns out that the baby glows! Fast forward 21 years and Hope is demanding her freedom in a world from which she has thus far been sheltered. Reenter Meintner, engaged by Thomas to be Hope’s tutor, and still obsessing about the Manhattan project. The final twist comes with the arrival of the Pilot, in WW2 Army Air Corps uniform, who uses a Geiger counter to find his prey. He fails to convince Meintner to change her mind but does persuade Hope to fulfill her destiny as He pilots the Enola Gay to 31,000 feet and a clear sky. It’s weird, disturbing and powerful.
Juliet Palmer’s eclectic score works well with the libretto. Each character is given a distinct vocal style. Meintner, for instance, gets a late Romantic tonal music, Hope gets a sort of punk coloratura and Claire gets a bizarre mélange of sounds from a nightmarish sound palette. The moods and style of the accompanying chamber ensemble (clarinet, electric guitar, percussion, piano, violin, bass and electric bass) under the direction of Leslie Dala are equally varied but fit the mood of the libretto well. Sue Lepage’s set and costume designs work well in a small theatre like Berkeley Street and effective use is made of smoke and pyrotechnics. There’s also a large circular screen with projections add to the overall effect. Keith Turnbull’s direction effectively tells the story which, absent surtitles, can be a challenge to follow. (The libretto is available at tapestryopera.com).
There are some really good performances. Andrea Ludwig as Meintner has the most “classical” singing to do and does it very lyrically creating a convincing portrait as the deepest of the characters. Christine Duncan gives a bravura performance as the somewhat neurotic Claire producing a series of noises that perhaps should never be heard from a human being. Teiya Kasahara throws herself into the role of Hope. Her coloratura roots are apparent in this very different and very high energy part. She’s also very convincing as a brat. Solid work too from Keith Klassen as the slightly sinister Pilot and Andrew Love as Thomas who jumped in at very short notice following Peter McGillivray’s withdrawal due to injury.
So, 75 minutes of challenging but worthwhile music theatre very well realised. There are three more performances; tonight and Saturday at 7.30pm and a 2pm matinee on Sunday. Tickets are available here.