Third Eye Theatre makes outstanding debut with Menotti’s “The Medium”

Sat Nov 01, 2014 at 3:18 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Angela Born as Monica and Will Green as Toby in Third Eye Theatre Ensemble's production of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Medium."
Angela Born as Monica and Will Green as Toby in Third Eye Theatre Ensemble’s production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium.”

On a rainy, snowy, blustery Halloween night, it seemed entirely apt to catch a performance of The Medium. The fact that Gian Carlo Menotti’s supernatural 1946 opera was being presented by a new upstart theater troupe in a suitable intimate space rather than an opera company in a vast auditorium added to the appeal.

Menotti’s 2011 centennial year passed completely ignored by Chicago’s major musical institutions, and it’s been years since any of his operas have been heard on local stages. All credit then to Third Eye Theatre Ensemble for belatedly making up this neglect with a riveting performance of The Medium, seen Friday night in Wicker Park. In this, the company’s inaugural production, Third Eye Theatre knocked it out of the park.

Like many of his stage works, Menotti’s The Medium inhabits a space where theater and opera seamlessly commingle. Friday night’s performance at the Pentagon Theater in the Flatiron Arts Building got all the important things right and the intimate in-the-round space, with the cast inches from the front row, brought a searing immediacy to this strange and violent tale. There are two more performances this weekend and I urge all aficionados of operatic byways to try to catch this show.

The scenario concerns Madame Flora, the title medium who makes her living by presenting fraudulent seances in which grieving relatives are comforted by the sounds and apparitions of their departed children. She is aided in the deception by her daughter Monica and the gentle mute boy Toby, who is the object of Flora’s abuse. During one seance she feels a cold hand on her neck, which can’t be explained. The incident leads to the mental unraveling of the bitter, alcoholic Flora with tragic consequences.

Menotti’s hour-long opera is less of a ghost story than a tale about the inability to confront the stark reality of life. As the composer stated, The Medium “describes the tragedy of a woman caught between two worlds: a world of reality she cannot comprehend, and a supernatural world in which she cannot believe.”

Apart from some musical bleed-through from the club below and competing Flatiron events, the third-floor space proved ideal for this intimate musical drama. Jimmy Jagos’s set design for Flora’s musty parlor was spot-on, as were Stefanie Johnsen’s costumes, both enhanced by Julian Pike’s artful lighting. Rose Freeman’s fluent direction was virtually faultless, bringing the audience right into the action and allowing the music and drama to register with equal impact.

Menotti scored The Medium for a small chamber ensemble. Third Eye is employing a more cost-effective piano accompaniment, yet Jason Carlson’s dramatic and sensitive keyboard playing made the missing instruments seem irrelevant.

Third Eye is alternating actresses for the roles of Flora and Monica. At Friday night’s performance, Rena Ahmed was a fine, inspired Flora, displaying a strong, edgy mezzo, and painting an aptly discomfiting portrait of this bitter and unpleasant woman, conveying the existential dread and terror of Flora’s final monologue.

Angela Born proved a terrific Monica. The young singer has a bright and lovely soprano and Born made the most of her vocal moments with an especially graceful rendition of her Act 2 Waltz. Yet she also brought fire and conviction to the play’s dramatic moments.

In the wordless role of the ill-fated Toby, Will Green displayed a feline grace as the artistic mute boy fearful of Flora’s wrath. The roles of the gullible seance clients were well taken by Adrianne Banks and Christopher Skyles, with Mary Lutz Govertsen displaying an impressive operatic voice as Mrs. Gobineau.

Minor quibbles are that the climactic gunshots sounded fake and came from behind a wall several feet from the stage. Also the program was heavy with generous biographies of all the cast and crew without a word about Menotti or the opera.

Never mind. It’s not quite clear what Third Eye Theatre’s genre will be. The program states that the company’s mission is “[making] a difference in our community” and “presenting works which relate to today’s world”—admirable yet generic intentions that could apply to almost any artistic entity.

One hopes that Third Eye will continue to explore classical byways. An opera-mad city like Chicago can use another small company eager to explore neglected operatic repertory. And with this outstanding Medium, Third Eye Theatre is off to a flying start.

There are two more performances of The Medium 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

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