Coulter’s novel staging gets physical
Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Todd Coulter described his approach to Stravinsky’s L’Historie du Soldat as “play.” Certainly it showed in Coulter’s direction of the thoroughly entertaining and novel production. Featuring the Donovan Ensemble (Johnie Niel and Joseph Kolbow) in the role of the Devil and Soldier respectively, and Sara Mulry from the dance group Kinetic Architecture as the princess, the multi-media performance tells a quasi-Faustian fairy tale.
L’Historie du Soldat combines elements of musical theater and ballet. The libretto by C.F. Ramuz is translated into English, delivered as rhyming couplets. Although most of the action is narrated by an onstage narrator, the three actors have short dialogue portions.
The simple plot involves a soldier coming home for leave, trading his violin, falling in love, outwitting the Devil, but then finding out the Devil still has the upper hand. It ends with the princess falling into a deathly sleep and the soldier being dragged to Hell.
In keeping with the fairy tale aesthetic, bold, single colors came to represent certain characters or moods. When the entire stage was bathed in red, the audience was aware the Devil’s treachery was afoot. Similarly, the props were two dimensional, cartoonish drawings, like cardboard cutouts. The audience responded very well to these choices, laughing at the flat props.
The actors had great chemistry together, responding to each others’ gestures and manipulations of space. For example, when Kolbow wakes Mulry with his violin, the musical directions are “first stiffly.” Kolbow mimed pulling up Mulry from her prostrate position, and she responded to his gesture with mechanical, slow movements, moving upward as his arm moved upward.
Mulry is a beautiful dancer, with a great sense of musicality and timing, when to give and take in response to the music. I thought she looked especially beautiful when partnering with Kolbow. Although not strictly a ballet, Mulry utilized traditional balletic gestures with a beautiful sense of line and form.
Niel brought a great camp element and highly physical aesthetic to the number of disguises/characters the Devil employs, to great humorous effect. The costuming was greatly exaggerated, again to fit the fairy tale aesthetic. As the buxom maid, he played up the hilarious effect of his highly exaggerated contours (for lack of a better word) performing a ridiculous and exaggerated femininity. As the Devil his costume was a red skintight suit with strange bulbous joints.
In the climactic fight scene with the soldier, Niel would jump on top of Koblow and hiss. All of this was slightly grotesque visually, very funny and carried a homoerotic subtext, which I appreciated.
Finally, Associate Professor of Music, Steven Nuss, made an excellent narrator. He interacted with the orchestra and the characters on stage, bringing a fun and sassy vibe to his character, adding witty and sarcastic commentary to the action unfolding. He had the greatest looks of disdain.
The septet of musicians, all Colby Music faculty, were excellent in supporting the action unfolding on the stage. Under conductor Jonathan Hallstrom’s direction, Stravinsky’s mixed meters came off seamlessly, and the musicality of the group was stunning. The “Pastorale” movement featured a beautiful, chromatic clarinet line, performed plaintively and with such sadness by Eric Thomas. Graybert Beacham, on violin, was also amazing, playing the virtuosic and dissonant violin part with aplomb.