“Verses are holy crosses / On which poets silently bleed to death.” The Yale Cabaret’s intense and effective production of Pierrot Lunaire—music by Arnold Schoenberg, poems by Alberg Giraud—combines a small chamber combo (Dan Schlosberg, piano; Clare Monfredo, cello; Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Ginevra Petrucci, flute and piccolo; Ashley Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet), a soprano (Virginia Warnken) and an actor (James Cusati-Moyer) in the role of Pierrot. The show, directed by Ethan Heard with an admirable sense of the work’s theatrical dimensions, also used, atmospherically, handwritten titles projected on the walls to give us an aphoristic précis for each new segment.
While there is a narrative arc, of sorts, that leads through the three parts—seven sections each—the sections at times have a snapshot or tableau-like intensity, illustrating a certain moment in the rather symbolic and emotionally fraught life of the quintessential sad clown. As Pierrot, Cusati-Moyer is phenomenal. The part requires great resources in mime and movement and in the kinds of body language and facial clues that made for stars of the silent screen. Cusati-Moyer has all the nuances firmly in hand.
Though antic, this Pierrot is not comic, exactly, nor is he ever campy. And that alone is worthwhile. While we should find something familiar in the figure of Pierrot, it’s important that his deep responses to things estrange us from him even as it invites us. But then that’s exactly what Schoenberg’s music does as well. In its refusal to use any easy, romantic flights to play upon our emotions, the score of Opus 21 is daunting and demanding, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to hear this music played with such dispatch. Even more so when the musicians playing it wear half-masks and costumes that make them seem vaguely threatening escapees from a German music conservatory. The mood of the piece is very much of a modernist Fasching party.
The lighting throughout the show is muted, moody, illuminating only what is necessary. Pierrot often moves in a spotlight, as does the impressive Warnken. Her interactions with Pierrot are intense: sometimes chiding him, or bedeviling him with “flecks” of moonlight, or playing a maternal figure, both stoic and longing—her sobbing singing at the end of the segment called “Madonna” is quite expressive. The musicians get into the act at times as well—I particularly liked Clare Monfredo standing upon a box to create a rain of rose petals for “Columbine.”
I saw the show twice: the first time, Thursday night, in a seat better situated for the tableau-like effects of placement and staging—such as watching Pierrot, a dandy, powder his face and examine each feature in a handheld mirror; on Friday night, I was seated nearer Warnken’s section of the playing area, so I could catch the words more clearly and was perfectly placed, it seemed to me, to hear the interplay of the instruments. Consequently, I paid less attention to the action. I don’t mean to say the show demanded an “either/or” attention, but rather that it offered much to both sound and sight, in a spirit that seems to me true to the melancholy and oddity, the glimmerings of joy and sorrow of this richly conceived opus.
Given the highly wrought tension between the score and the action, Pierrot Lunaire is the kind of production that creates rather different responses in different viewers. Poetic logic more than narrative logic abides, and to that end Giraud draws upon a repertoire of recognizable conceits—being “moondrunk” or “homesick”—and figures, such as Columbine, the Madonna, the Dandy. Favorite segments for me were "Night," an almost surreal and discordant segment, and "Serenade," featuring very evocative cello. Elsewhere there are the kind of sacrificial gestures that befit a paschal figure—so much so that staging this work on Easter weekend amounts to a religious solemnity, for those in the “religion of art” camp, that is. And this is high art indeed.
Pierrot Lunaire Music by Arnold Schoenberg Poems by Albert Giraud; Translation by Otto Erich Hartleben Directed by Ethan Heard
Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Dramaturg: Helen Jaksch; Costume Designer: Maria Hooper; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Projection Designer: Shawn Boyle; Stage Manager and Producer: Anh Le; Music Coach: Michael Friedmann
Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street March 28-30, 2013