Fertile Ground review: Finding their way in the storm

The Snowstorm deftly combines music, movement, and more to create magical theater.


Editor’s note:  CoHo ProductionsThe Snowstorm, which closed last weekend after a too-short at Portland’s Coho Theatre, was one of the biggest hits of this year’s Fertile Ground festival, its entire run selling out after the first weekend’s performances. Its unusually rich combination of elements inspired ArtsWatch to cover it with an unusual team approach, using writers experienced in each of its three primary components: veteran Portland concert pianist Maria Choban to discuss the music, dance writer and choreographer Jamuna Chiarini to consider the dance, and Brett Campbell to take a look at the theatrical elements.

In the The Snowstorm, music precedes words from the downbeat. As the audience walks in, a pianist casually tickles the ivories at a grand piano, and the actors mingle and chat with each other among the seats. It’s hard to tell, until the lights cue us, just where the performance ends and reality begins, or is it the other way around? Gradually, the cast members array themselves in chairs on stage in front of us, facing the back of the stage, where we soon understand they’re watching a turn-of-the-century parlor piano recital. We audience members suddenly feel as though we constitute the rear ranks of that stage audience. Both accompanist and audience are in effect onstage.

That’s not the only oddity at the play’s outset. As the music plays, we see the youngest “audience” member start fidgeting, and soon the players start transforming (via the young boy, Pavel’s, imagination and Tony Fuemmler’s arresting masks) from the bourgeoisie of belle époque Veliky Novgorod into dancing wild creatures far more fascinating to a 10-year-old than proper Russian gentry. Already we can tell: this story will be told as much via movement, music and magic as conventional dialogue.

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

In that opening scene, the accompanist, Eric Nordin, assumes the nonspeaking role of Andres, the touring musician whom the “audience” — that is, the players — have come to hear perform. And although after the recital ends, the parlor gives way to other sets, and we audience members (the real audience, that is, not the performing “audience”) return to our usual role as detached observers, Nordin never leaves the stage. For the next two hours, while the rest of the action happens elsewhere on stage around him, he plays a dozen and a half tunes by Rachmaninoff, the late-Romantic Russian composer whose music fairly bursts with the emotions the upper middle class characters are forbidden by social convention to express — yet are clearly feeling.

Nordin is also The Snowstorm’s scriptwriter and co-creator, with director/choreographer Jessica Wallenfels, and his piano almost becomes a character summoning the past in this story about a father and a middle aged woman who meet at this recital, and who’ve both suffered grievous losses. Via flashbacks to the events of a decade before the play opens, as is common in so many plays and novels these days, we’ll spend the rest of this melodrama (using the term in its original sense) discovering just what past tragedies brought the unfortunate pair to the state we first glimpse them in, and learning how they affected a father’s relationship with his young son, and a woman’s relationship to society. The ultimate outcome of their encounter is pretty predictable, too, but that doesn’t stop this “original fable” from being one of the most enjoyable and fully realized productions we’ve encountered at Portland’s Fertile Ground festival.

Music as Character

The Snowstorm succeeds primarily because of its seamless integration of disparate elements, especially dance and music. Rachmaninoff’s music haunts the play (it’s misleading to call it a “musical,” because that term connotes the typical century-old song-and-dialogue structure of American music theater) like a ghost from turn of the 20th century Russia. Not all of it worked for ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban. (Warning: her comments contain a plot spoiler.)

Jamie Rea, Eric Nordin (at piano). Photo: Brud Giles.

Jamie Rea, Eric Nordin (at piano). Photo: Brud Giles.

It was a great concept, and the extremely likable pianist was sensitive to the actors and dancers. But the novelty held me for awhile and then the music became distracting. The impressionist-sounding pieces were too much the same style: too much pedaled rubatoed moderato eighth notes. I wanted staccatos – sharp chords to underpin some of the spicier moments. I’d have picked Rachmaninoff’s g minor op. 10/3 military prelude played at a foreboding military pace for the scene where the lover gets shot. In the scene where Anna finds out the fate of her lover, I’d play the c# minor prelude op. 3/2 at the recap, where the anguish is so massive that the pianist has to span the entire piano – the score is written on three staves. For the tender ice skating scene: the love theme from the second movement of the second piano concerto (either an arrangement or just an exerpted piano portion where it stands on its own). The audience (me included) loves to hear stuff they know or have heard before.

These three excerpts would have worked better in these scenes than what we got, which did nothing for me. I needed moodier, more bi-polar selections with different articulations (like those staccatos and sharp chords) and huger dynamic ranges that stood on their own and then also melded well with the drama/dancing on stage, versus just the pianist’s very sensitive nuancing with the actors/dancers.

In the end, the music’s prominence left me feeling like it was a gimmick because of the sameness and perhaps second-rateness of the Rachy pieces he chose, and also the not quite crisp playing, descending to rather sloppy in the second act. With different pieces I might have been more moved. At some points I was outright annoyed. But I am distracted easily and cannot listen to music while doing anything else – like watching dancers or listening to dialogue (although ‘Tubular Bells’ totally put me over the top in The Exorcist).

It’s hard to fault anything, though, because although on paper it sounds great, I could not have predicted some of these less than perfect variables had I not seen it. That’s why Fertile Ground workshops are so important for directors. I LOVE the amount of time the pianist spent working it out to get it to this level.

Would it be possible to think of the role not just as the role of the music but to fold in the pianist as a character? If the concept is re-worked for another production of this play, perhaps by turning the pianist into a character and varying the music selections which he still plays, the imaginative concept might even become emotionally viable rather than just cool for a few minutes.

Meaning from Motion

Wallenfels, who’s choreographed theater in Portland and at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, knows how to use motion to advance the story and express otherwise hidden (and repressed) emotions. The characters frequently embark on dance and other choreographed movement.

The Snowstorm may have been custom tailored to my skillset, but throughout the process Eric developed a strict conception of how specific story points were wedded to specific sections of music, down to the chord in many places,” Wallenfels wrote in the program notes. “This vision offered me an exquisite, and completely unheard of, set of restrictions to work within. Eric and the cast have collaborated with me extensively in bringing this scored set of stage directions to life: the choreography has been created based on their ideas as well as my own, with a good measure of group work in rehearsal.”

ArtsWatch dance writer Jamuna Chiarini found the play’s dance elements essential to our understanding of both the characters and their story:

Dance picks up where words leave off. Dance is full of nuances that are just not possible to communicate only with words. It is nonverbal communication and it makes perfect sense to me to add dance movement into a play as a tool to help further the line of communication and development of the characters.

But dance in theater is traditionally not central to the storyline. In opera, dance is mostly used as entertainment within the story, like circus performances or gypsy dances or prostitutes. In most musical theater, it is used in between scenes or as a backdrop to a more central part of the story. In rare cases like in West Side Story it becomes integral to the story line in addition to the singing. In traditional theater, the actors don’t ordinarily dance, but movement itself is usually essential. The Snowstorm is the only play I have ever seen where dance (as distinct from non-choreographed movement) is integral to the story and is used throughout the whole play and is equal in status to the music and dialogue. The play used dance movement as a way to seamlessly connect the audience with the hidden emotional states of each character and to help us escape into the imagination of the little boy Pavel.

Retreating into the imagination for comfort is a form of escapism that Pavel uses as a coping mechanism to deal with the emotional chasm that has grown between him and his father since his birth and the death of his mother. The teacher and the maids have become a surrogate family to him and with them he feels safe. It is through these animal dance scenes that he is working out trust. In the end of the play the father becomes a terrifying wolf who Pavel thinks is trying to attack him but is revealed in the end to be his father who finally makes an emotional plea with Pavel to not be afraid and to understand that he is loved.

I really enjoyed being transported into Pavel’s imagination and watching the animals come to life. The masks were beautiful and their lack of facial details gave them a feeling of mystery and otherworldliness. It refocused our attention on their dancing to fully define the characters of the animals. Pavel is the cunning little fox, his teacher is a Hawk, and the maids are a bear and a hen. I was reminded of Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of animals living like people, mixed with a classic story ballet and dancing animals.

snowstorm masks

Dance also contributed to our understanding of the other characters and their history. In one, Anna leaves a party quickly, heavily burdened by something unknown to us. On her walk home she pauses in a shadowy spot on the stage and is suddenly embraced from behind by an unknown man. He embraces her from behind forcing her to cross her arms in front hugging herself while being hugged. Together they slowly open and close this embrace in agony, like every bit of touch and movement is painful. Finally she pushes him back and silently screams up into the heavens in an expression of total abandoned grief.

Their second dance was equally powerful. Again out of the shadows the man appears but this time they are crouched on the floor facing each other. This time, the encounter seems more real than the last because Anna and the man are actually talking to each other. Together they roughly try to piece together a memory of their wedding, which never actually happened. It’s a dance that keeps adding on and going back to the beginning and adding on a little more, its like a dance rehearsal. No, this is how it went, no it was like this, no not like that. Anna gets so frustrated that she pushes away the man in the end and it becomes clear that he is a ghost.

Not every dance worked so well. When he hears the news of his wife’s death, Dmitri ‘explodes’ in an awkward, slow motion, robotic-looking expression of his grief. This was the first real physical expression of his inner world. The awkwardness was in line with his character but his dancing contribution to the show as a whole was much less than the other characters’. Overall, the dance movement in the actors’ bodies looked very natural, as if created from a real physical reaction to an emotion rather than steps arranged or drawn from a specific dance form and placed on the dancers. Having the characters dance gave them a more three-dimensional look, less stilted and blocky like in traditional theater or opera.

Wallenfels also addresses the question of what is dance by giving equal attention to the ‘dance movement’ and to the pedestrian tasks given to the characters, like unfolding a shawl or arranging and rearranging chairs or walking across the set. Using postmodern dance within the context of this play made it accessible to a larger audience. It’s almost like being given a primer to understanding post modern dance.”


Beyond Words

Director Wallenfels deserves immense credit for keeping all those moving parts exquisitely integrated and in synch. These nonliteral elements, including those masks, accentuate the play’s excursions into the characters’ past, and into Pavel’s imagination. His flights of fancy offer metaphorical insights into the other characters’ relationships and, like the dance and music, help us peer beneath their socially imposed veneers. Even though the play covers familiar historical and literary territory (Chekov, Dostoevsky), it feels fresh.

The Snowstorm’s obvious professionalism extends to its acting. As he did last year in Masque of the Red Death at Shaking the Tree Theater, Matthew Kerrigan seizes audiences’ attention every moment he’s onstage, whether playing Anna’s doomed lover or a gypsy performer who reminds her of him. His dancing companions, played by Beth Thompson (as compelling here as she was with Kerrigan in Masque) and Kira Batcheller, are equally winning. Brian Demar Jones wins our sympathy in the limited foil role of Dmitri’s assistant Nicolai. Garland Lyons gets only a single, tense scene as a shady Russian arms smuggler, but plays it so ominously that a chill seems to fall over the theater. (The actors playing the subsidiary characters play multiple minor roles too, often masked.) And Elisha Henig’s irresistible yet not too cute performance as little Pavel would satisfy actors several times his age.

As for the couple at the heart of the story, Anna (Jamie Rea) feels a bit underdeveloped and Dmitri (Chris Harder) takes half the play to thaw from his repressed grief, though it makes his ultimate warming all the more powerful. The able actors (who merit special plaudits for their choreographed movement as well as their more conventional acting) and nonverbal elements help fill in the gaps in the script’s characterization, likely caused by its bold attempt to tell and ultimately blend three different stories from as many perspectives. When the play is revived, it might find room for their deeper development by paring or even cutting a scene with Anna and her sister and some of Pavel’s fantasy sequences, which sometimes drag. And it needs a bigger space than tiny Coho affords; the pianist’s onstage position probably blocked some audience members’ view of some of the action, and there’s just not enough room for all the action.

But even in this form, The Snowstorm’s five years in development really shows in its convincing realization of its vaulting creative ambitions. In its most memorable scene, Anna and Dmitri venture onto a frozen pond sans skates, slipping and struggling to stay upright by supporting each other, as Wallenfels turns their awkwardness into an unstable dance, their feelings into a yearning Rachmaninoff prelude, and the actors do the rest with just their bodies and faces. The nonverbal dramatic elements converge so effectively that no words are needed to tell the story of their relationship. At moments like that one, The Snowstorm achieves a dramatic and emotional resonance that transcends words.

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One Response.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    congratulations on a monumental achievement

    commenting as a composer – curious why an original score wasn’t commissioned, unless it was the music of Rachmaninoff that inspired the work and framed the action

    discussing it with my wife and principal collaborator, Agnieszka Laska, who filled numerous choreographic commissions for directors at Krakow’s Stary Teatr, she confirmed that virtually every director she worked with would have commissioned a score

    would be interested to know which came first in the author’s imagination

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