You Us We All
Photo courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts
Death, Virtue and Hope in You Us We All
UNC's Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015
The program for Shara Worden and Andrew Ondrejcak’s pop-culture chamber opera proclaims it to be “a rite for Humankind personated as a masque at court/ given by the Right Honourable Carolina Performing Arts/ at the Memorial Hall of Chapel Hill North Carolina,” going on in this fashion for eight more lines before concluding, “For: You.”
The fanfare’s effusive tone is of a piece with the delightful, vexing production. You Us We All
is earnestly emotional, ironically contemporary, romantically archaic, alternately grandiose and precious, insolently devotional—in all, a bit much, but an irresistible confection all the same.
Commissioned by the ensemble Baroque Orchestration X
for singer-composer Worden and writer-director Ondrejcak, You Us We All
came to Chapel Hill following its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
. It’s based on 17th-century European court masques, musical dramas with vignettes starring abstract cardinal virtues that served as proxies for their aristocratic audiences. It exploits this proto-opera form for its intimate decadence and opulent sheen, thought the work mostly looks for opportunities to cram high culture into low places.
The costumes dazzle (the wig designer gets his own playbill credit), but the seductive trappings are also played for laughs. Ondrejcak’s shadowy staging turns baroque drama’s flat backgrounds into a screen displaying a not-quite-random dance of browser windows—yes, including a chorus of emoji. It’s written as a travesty of Early Modern English, like a teenager’s first epic fantasy fiction, all haphazard “-eths” and dysfunctional elisions. Played in the baroque style—lots of latticed arpeggios, almost no vibrato—on period instruments, including viols, cornett, harpsichord and theorbo (an archaic lute), Worden’s excellent music is a bright, soft music-box burble. It's executed with chiming smoothness by B.O.X., though darker, throatier colors seep in through the hilariously bleating sackbut, a baroque trombone.
The plot, such as it is, deals with Death—played by the arresting countertenor Bernhard Landauer—falling in love with Love (baritone Martin Gerke). The show is mostly a sequence of loose-strung set pieces and recurring devices. Hope—sung with fine, earthy precision by Worden—is existentially depressed, which manifests in a series of one-sided dialogues with pop “divas”: Beyoncé
, Celine, Whitney
. Virtue (Helga Davis) plies Hope with martinis and salacious advice. Time (downtown performance artist Carlos Soto) sulks on the periphery in briefs and a ruffed collar. With his pouty slouch and rich croak of a voice, he steals every scene in which he comes to the fore; his reeling soliloquy about the geologic history of Earth
is the production’s starkest, most visionary moment.
Worden and Ondrejcak told The New York Times
they got the idea for You Us We All
after seeing Henry Purcell’s semi-opera, The Fairy-Queen
, which is based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream
. When the star of Shakespeare’s enchanted comedy, the fickle Lysander, cries out, “So quick bright things come to confusion,” he is talking (natch) about love. But patrons might cry out the same thing at any number of points during You Us We All
, where glib parody and serious themes run together in an oily rainbow. The costumes progressively come apart—“The body/ strip’ed bare." Time strips off pair after pair of underwear, always with another underneath, adding them to a growing pile. Hope becomes something like a commedia dell'arte
clown in Spanx.
Amid all the atrophy, the naïve song in which Love finally returns Death’s devotion stands out as hyperbolically twee, with adorable pink bunny balloons bounding across the stage. At Memorial Hall, this climax drew laughs rather than gasps—telling about a work that hangs in a froth above heady concepts that are loudly sounded but only somewhat fathomed. I felt myself craving an arc, tension, release. What did it all mean? That we invest our hopes and dreams in plasticized facades? That love and death are entwined? That, simply, “it sucks being human”? That it’s funny to sing “spank in the pantaloons” in a rarified setting?
Ondrejcak’s script musters a conclusive emotional impetus for all the tormented searching—we are all split chromosomes longing to reunite—but that is a pretty slight epiphany. You Us We All
says so much about so many large and deep things that, by the end, you’re no longer sure what it’s trying to say at all. In playing its sly games with jejune grandiosity and mature profundity, it sometimes muddles which is which. It pleased me deeply but moved me lightly, its glimpses of transcendence plentiful but not pursued. A slightly begrudging standing O seemed to capture the audience’s sentiment: “I’m not sure I entirely bought that, but it was really something, and you really went for it.”
It’s more a crowd-teaser than a crowd-pleaser, then. I’d see it again.