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Prototype Festival: "The Scarlet Ibis" at HERE

by Steven Pisano

_B5A3129 (L>R) Eric S. Brenner, Hai-ting ChinnPhotos by Cory Weaver/Prototype Festival

The Scarlet Ibis a new chamber opera by composer Stefan Weisman and librettist David Cote, premiered at HERE last week as part of the Prototype Festival, now in its third year of developing cutting-edge opera and musical theater. Based on a symbolic short story by James Hurst from 1960, Weisman's score is rich and suggestive: at times bright and hopeful, at other times menacing and dark.

In the American South of the early twentieth century, a 6-yr old boy plays with tin soldiers from the Civil War, backlit as shadows on a small white screen. The boy’s mother wails, and suddenly, a mysterious red object is pulled from her, glowing like a hot coal. It is a baby boy.

But this is no pretty Gerber baby. With its large head and shrivelled red body, the parents marvel at their newborn in horror, as if it were not quite human. The boy, known only as Brother, had been hoping for a playmate, but realizing he’ll never be able to play with that, readies a pillow to smother the thing.

But suddenly, the infant smiles at the boy, and from that instant on, he becomes the weakling’s defender, eventually teaching him to walk, climb, swim, and be strong. Brother renames him Doodle, saying he moves like a doodlebug: the larva of a fly that burrows patterns in sand. 

_B5A2944 (L>R) Nicole Mitchell, Hai-Ting Chinn, Josh Rice, Meghan Williams, Eric F. Avery, Eric S. Brenner, Abigail Fischer, Keith Phares

Doodle is portrayed by a puppet designed by Tom Lee, and though a team of handlers (Eric F. Avery, John Rice, and Meghan Williams) make him move realistically, it is Eric S. Brenner's sweet, evocative countertenor that defines the character. Brenner delivers an unforgettable performance: haunting, heart-rending, and always in command.

Mezzo soprano Hai-Ting Chinn is strong and confident as Brother. As the Mother, soprano Abigail Fischer delivers a heartbreaking song to the newborn Doodle, her red hair tightly wound up farm-style around her head. She made me think of other mothers with children born deformed or otherwise different, and how maternal love is strong enough to conquer all.

The 9-musician orchestra, under the direction of Steven Osgood, handles the score adeptly, both underscoring the action and supporting the singers. The staging was directed by Mallory Catlett.

In the closing scene, Brother takes Doodle out in a rowboat on the swamp, when lightning and thunder herald a coming storm. It is a simple yet clever bit of stagework, the boat floating on a wheeled platform while the puppeteers shine a flashlight on a bowl of water that casts up reflections on the boat’s hull.

_B5A3284 (L>R) Hai-Ting Chinn, Eric S. BrennerThere are four more performances of The Scarlet Ibis: all are sold out, but the theater does have a wait list for unclaimed tickets. For more information, please contact HERE.