By Bob Shuman
Iceland, both the title and central metaphor for an opera by O-Lan Jones (director) and Emmet Tilley (music)–now playing at La MaMa through April 2–is like this year’s slow crawl out of winter in New York, as well as the country’s measured reawakening after COVID. The show portrays heterosexual constraint, the difficulties of forming social and physical relationships, oft standard musical theatre fare, to be sure, except that it gets stuck, like Stevie Nicks realizing that she has been singing the same song all night, at practice with Fleetwood Mac, none willing to finalize a song cut. Iceland, similarly, like the glaciers, echoes at the same emotional level for much of its 90 minutes; Act II does not evolve from the previous, where a young architect (Nancy McArthur), whose luggage is lost in a flight from Oslo, meets a mountaineer in Iceland (Oliver Demers), who has been caught in an avalanche (which might be more dramatic if it happens within the frame of the drama, instead of before it). All signs would point to a Rose-Marie or a hippy musical, set in the tundra (if not a show like Brigadoon; the cast includes characters of Icelandic legend, the hiddenfolk and landvaettir); here, though, the lyric is, “Come to me–I need your open arms” instead of “Come to me, Bend to Me.” The score is classically inspired, making use of four trained opera singers, as well as a chorus, with an eleven-piece live orchestra (music direction/conducting is by Robert Kahn). Additionally, Iceland offers folk-pop songs, which may be reminiscent of the early music of Galt McDermot, Stephen Schwartz, Webber and Rice, and even Crosby, Stills & Nash. Our time is clearly not that era, though, or the ‘40s and ‘50s and classic Broadway musicals, or of ‘20s operetta, but theatre-crafting, for now, despite incredible technological means, still must authentically find the wherewithal to figure itself out.
At times, an audience can only see how hard a show is trying and not its realization as dramatic art. Part of the issue, which may be affecting Iceland is that the tried-and-true boy-meets-girl formula does not automatically lend itself to the way life is being lived currently. The show’s soulful self-seriousness is also reinforced by an October article in Psychology Today, by Greg Mattos, “Why Are So Many Young Men Single and Sexless,” which highlights Pew Research, indicating that “over 60 percent of young men are currently single, whereas only 30 percent of young women are. Women, additionally, have prioritized “academic, professional, and financial goals” more firmly, solidifying men’s “generational inclination toward avoidance and withdrawal.” La MaMa has traditionally championed physical over language-based theatre, but here plot and story have been eclipsed by generalization, with lyrics that don’t automatically register. When they do, they seem sentimental, too generic, as if from a radio tune, on which anyone can be projected, and not from a character’s history and identity. Yet, the setting, the movement and spiral dancing are well staged, with imaginative earth-toned costumes (Matsy Stinson) sets, lights, and stage pieces (Matthew Imhoff) and animation (Kayla Berry), even if they remain apart from accumulating, dramatic action. Trying to get so much right about a generation, the theatre-makers have not allowed themselves to be wrong enough to tell a specific human story.
Copyright © 2023 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Ariel Andrew, Marieke de Koker, Oliver Demers, Perri di Christina, Clayton Matthews, Nancy McArthur, A.C. “Ace” McCarthy, Matthew Moron, Matt Mueller, Carlos Pedroza, Isabel Springer, Andrew Wannigman, Angela Yam, Daiyao Zhong
Composer/Librettists: O-Lan Jones and Emmett Tinley
Director: O-Lan Jones
Music Director: Robert Kahn
Assistant Director: Livia Reiner; with production support from BARE opera
Lighting and Scenic Design: Matthew Imhoff
Costume Designer: Matsy Stinson
Projection Content Design: Melody (Mela) London
The piece is arranged for two leads with a contemporary singer-songwriter sound, four classically trained operatic vocalists, and an SATB ensemble. It is orchestrated for Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, Harp, Keyboards, French Horn, English Horn/Oboe, Flute, Guitar and Percussion.
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Photo credits, from top: Bronwen Sharp (1, 3), Stacia French (2, 4)