"El Cimarron" is one of those "oughta" events.
Like a Packer playoff game, going to the dentist or giving a homeless person a buck or two on a day of freezing temperatures.
Things you "oughta" do. People tell you about them all the time. And Viswa Subbaraman, the artistic director at Skylight Music Theatre, talked about how people ought to see "El Cimarron." In one video piece, he said the play would "change you forever."
I don’t know about changing me forever, but it’s probably as close as the next best choice for changing me forever.
"El Cimarron" is the stunning, unique and excruciatingly powerful story of Esteban Montejo, who was born a slave in Cuba, escaped to the woods, fought in the Cuban War of Independence from Spain and lived to be 113 years old before dying in 1973.
The tortured story of how Montejo’s life became the sparkling star for a book, a libretto and some of the most incredible music you’ve ever heard, is far too complicated for this review. So, let us just concentrate on the production, which opened Friday night and runs through January 12 at the Skylight.
A quartet of talented music professionals under the guidance of Subbaraman himself, who also takes a turn as an auxiliary percussionist, tackles a score by Hanz Werner Henze that will never be mistaken for "My Fair Lady" or "The Music Man." Michael Lorenz (percussion) Scott Metilcka playing a variety of flutes and piccolo and Nathan Wysock on guitar carry this story along on wings of some kind of musical angel.
Nobody sings along to this music, and nobody really dances to it, although a rhumba rhythm or two rears its head now and then.
This is music designed to do one thing: tell us a story as one of two characters on the stage.
The other character is Montejo himself, played by baritone Eric McKeever who has both a vocal and visual command of a stage that is stunning in both its complexity and its simplicity.
These two characters, the actor and the music, equally share in the telling of a story that is uncomfortable at times, thrilling at others and, in the end, an emotional ride full of joy, sorrow and passion.
The contributors to this production all carry their share of an incredibly elastic load, but special mention must be paid to Eugenia Arsenis, the stage director who breathes life into this story as a shot of helium fills a balloon.
She exudes confidence and passion as she explains her attraction and her clarity of vision for "El Cimarron." She has a special bond with this play. I can imagine dozens of directors being offered an opportunity to direct this piece, only to turn away and look for "Our Town."
Directing this play takes courage, grace and a deep desire to set free the flights of fancy that best tell this story. It is certain that this piece requires exquisite discipline, but that discipline without freedom would fall flat. This is about the story of a slave, but it is also about being free from convention when you tell a story.
The astounding thing about her gentle guidance of this production is how remarkably calm the evening is. She has taken the most uncomfortable and turned it into a warm blanket to snuggle in before a raging fire. The marriage of this music and this story needs to have a steady, soft and fearless hand at the tiller, and she brings all of that.
Subbaraman, who can still be called the new artistic director, has a background in classical music. He has shown with his program for this year, featuring everything from "Les Miserables" to "Hair," that he is well attuned to the intrinsic value of the big show.
With "El Cimarron" he has served notice that he is not going to march through this musical world with fear on his shoulder. This is a brave choice. It is not a play for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a gentle evening out, don’t bother with this.
But if you are brave enough to be challenged both intellectually and emotionally, if you are brave enough to face something new and unexpected, and if you are brave enough to wonder how in the world man could do some of these things to his brothers, then see this play.
It is, most clearly, something you all "oughta" do.
Information is available at http://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Oct. 6, 2015
Recently, the Milwaukee Bucks extended the contract of General Manager John Hammond. The agreement keeps Hammond in his position with the Bucks through the 2016-17 season. I was wrong on this one. In July I had written that the Bucks were on the verge of appointing Coach Jason Kidd to be the head of basketball operations and either parting ways with Hammond or finding another position for him in the organization.
Published Oct. 4, 2015
Sometimes it takes a little tap on your noggin to get the point across and sometimes it takes a blow from a sledge hammer. The sledge hammer gets a total workout in "Back of the Throat," the over-the-top horror show running at Next Act's Third Ward theater.
Published Oct. 4, 2015
One of the worst things that can happen to anybody walking into a theater is to know all about the twists and turns and surprises that are in store. If you know, then it's not a surprise. Following my intense belief in not having the shout "spoiler alert" every time I see a play, I fully intend to say almost nothing about what happens in "Any Given Monday," an hilarious if slightly off-kilter comedy that opened over the weekend at In Tandem's Tenth Street Theatre.
Published Oct. 3, 2015
If at some point in your life you decide that you want to write your autobiography there are a couple of very important items to consider. One is that you can write. The other is that your life better have something interesting about it. Both of the requirements are met, gloriously, in "The Lion," the one man show that opened Friday night at the Stiemke Studio of the Milwaukee Rep.
Published Oct. 1, 2015
Over the last several months Dave Begel has seen a steady parade of fear mongers show up and convince a Common Council committee to turn down applications for a strip club in Downtown Milwaukee.
Published Sept. 30, 2015
Wisconsin has always taken pride in the fact that the Green Bay Packers are the little team that could, nestled in a tiny town smaller than the suburbs of most NFL teams. Tradition may be the most important product of this city. We love the present but we revere our past. All of that is well and good, but it is probably time the Packers take some steps to move into the 21st century.
Published Sept. 30, 2015
Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, the reigning U.S. pairs figure skating champions. will be among the headliners at the prestigious "Skate America" competition at the UWM Panther Arena Oct. 23-25.
Published Sept. 27, 2015
Many days and evenings of live theater ask for an audience to bring both heart and head to the theater in equal measure, ready for everything from tears to fears to gales of laughter. "Dear Elizabeth," the play by Sarah Rule that opened over the weekend at Chamber Theatre, is a bit of a rarity. While you may chuckle and certainly tear up at the end, the majority of your time is going to be spent with your mind being challenged and exercised.
Published Sept. 27, 2015
You would never think that it would take a slightly middle-aged white guy from England to take Milwaukee on a riotous tour of the black soul music that so enwrapped the lives of so many people, black and white. But give Mark Clements, artistic director at the Milwaukee Rep, a big showy play, and he'll swing hard at the softball and hit it out of the park. That's the case with "Dreamgirls."
Published Sept. 26, 2015
A poor painter in love with a beautiful, tempestuous woman. An evil cop and his equally evil henchmen. Jealousy. Betrayal. Invading armies. Escaped prisoners. Death and destruction. If it sounds like the latest and hottest movie or an afternoon soap opera, prepare to be surprised. It's "Tosca," the famed Puccini opera that opened the 2015-16 season for Skylight Music Theatre Friday night. And please, don't let the word "opera" scare you off.