Monday, April 14, 2008

hope. spring. eternal.

The Oakland Ballet as the Comeback Kid drew a big crowd full of tulle-bedecked children, jeans-wearing teens and casually festive families Saturday to see director Ronn Guidi's 1996 production of "The Secret Garden" at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland.

Even some of the seats at the back of the cavernous movie palace were occupied by people other than ushers, and for the first time in decades, Oakland Ballet seemed to have corralled a broad audience.

What was particularly exciting was that some of the ticket holders seemed never to have seen a live theatrical show before, like the teenage boys who laughed at what, to them, sounded like a real-time mishap backstage (the taped sound of a tree falling).

Moments later they realized their mistake when the woman who disappeared into the wings was next seen in her stage husband's arms.

Exposing people to the excitement of live performance can make restagings such as "The Secret Garden" wholly worthwhile, especially when live music is there to bolster the action, as the Oakland East Bay Symphony under Michael Morgan was. Although their playing was uneven, they supported the story with the sweeping, plaintive music of Edward Elgar and it transmitted the physicality of dance as canned music rarely can.

But it would inspire people a whole lot more if they could understand the narrative action without having to read the story. Even people who knew the tale had trouble placing the woman in the sari (danced by Michelle Brown) who tended and seemed to spiritually shelter a lonely young girl named Mary. Was the sari-clad woman real, someone wondered, or a ghost?

And the brevity with which, in the dance, the story's omnipresent housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, appears (danced with hilarious imperiousness by Oakland Ballet alum Joy Gim) also brought confusion. A synopsis would have offered some help. In its place the program listed the titles of the more than 30 scenes and read like a Morse code — "Morning, a week later" or "Mary, in India and her parents' deaths."

During intermission, one mom marched up the aisle telling her daughter that she hoped by Act II to have figured out the story. But even a synopsis wouldn't have solved all problems. Wave upon wave of fast-moving scenes read across the footlights as endless backstory. Not only did the narrative frenzy get exhausting, but the point to it all seemed a long way away. It was.

Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 classic "The Secret Garden," the ballet revolves around the orphaned and feral Mary and, in echo, her crippled cousin Colin, both damaged by loss and adult neglect. Mirroring them are a few even sourer adults like Colin's father Archibald Craven and Mrs. Medlock. A maid, Martha, and a gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, offset the neglect with attention and care.

The garden surrounding Craven's manor that Weatherstaff tends holds another, secret garden where Colin's mother's accident occurred. Both physically and metaphorically, the garden is the heart of the story, linking love and persistent care to rebirth.

Much about Guidi's "Secret Garden" was valiant 12 years ago and remains so, embodying some of his strongest talents for mise-en-scene, for precise, commedia-style characterizations and for heartwarming story.

Seventeen-year-old Claire Lewis portrayed a captivating Mary and brought her character to devilish life with perfectly pitched gesture, strong dancing and narrative flourish. Longtime company member Michael Lowe as the rheumy Weatherstaff managed to be gently doddering and smoothly funny.

Sensuous Jenna McClintock as the wife Lilias and crisply distant Joral Schmalle as the husband Archibald Craven each brought mature depth to their roles, although Guidi's choreography never rose above the ordinary.

Guidi's greatest strength has always been as a dramatic master of the small detail. Here, as in his "Romeo and Juliet," he uses his acting knowledge to carve out characters we care about. What is missing amid Rod Steger's still-captivating scenic decor and Ariel's warm costumes is a feel for condensed meanings, dance that is sculpted as well as flowing through time.

"The Secret Garden," for all its narrative accuracy, sentimental care, strong performances and kid-friendly flourishes, never moves us. Minus that, I expect that those teenage boys won't be back in the theater anytime soon.

reprinted with permission of the Contra Costa Times

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