‘She, After’ at UrbanArias at Artisphere by Justin Schneider

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I’m not generally an opera person. I find them too big, too grandiose, and without enough substance. So it’s with great pleasure that I say that UrbanArias has created the antidote for the traditional opera – engaging, intimate, daring, and maybe above all, short. It’s a wonderful combination, and their latest work She, After demonstrates this to be a winning formula.

 Emily Pulley in "Nora  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Emily Pulley in “Nora, In The Great Outdoors.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

She, After is a one-woman show starring soprano Emily Pulley and consisting of two shorter operas. The first, Nora, In The Great Outdoors, follows Nora of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House moments after that play’s final door-slam. The second, Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock, deals with the eponymous Alice of Wonderland experiencing menopause many years after her famous adventures. While the time-scales are very different, the connection between the two pieces is extremely clear. In both cases, Daniel Felsenfeld was driven to write music by thinking about where these protagonists went after the story was over, and director Beth Greenberg has managed to meld them into something that feels extremely cohesive – as if the two operas were written together instead of several years apart.

UrbanArias’ stripped-down aesthetic is clear from the set, which consists entirely of three properties. Stage left is a chandelier, resting on the ground; stage right, a wooden chair; center, a white door in a frame. Set and costume designer Valérie Bart has given the production just enough to work with, and not an item more. The chandelier, for example, plays double duty as a sign of Nora’s discarded domesticity and – lifted into the air and illuminated – as the Cheshire Cat’s floating grin. The staging may be sparse, but everything fits perfectly together. Lighting, movement, and music are perfectly choreographed, and the small scale and close quarters give you plenty of opportunity to appreciate those details.

It may be tempting for a purist to say that UrbanArias is doing something else – maybe a kind of performance art, maybe some strange kind of hybrid musical – but when Pulley opens her mouth to sing, she manages to remove all doubt. Pulley’s soprano is everything you could ask for, and the small space at Artisphere allows the audience to see that opera is about more than just the voice and music. It’s clear that both musically and as an actor, Pulley is aware of her characters’ arcs and is committed to exploring their development. This in particular is something that UrbanArias has over the lavish, massive spectacles so common with traditional opera. Every seat is a great seat, and close enough that the acting isn’t swamped by the production.

One of the best things about UrbanArias is that every performance is followed by a short talk-back. Opera fans are passionate about the art, and at Saturday’s talk-back, the audience had a few issues with the direction the works had taken. One gentlemen in particular had a very, very smart critique of the company’s handling of Ibsen’s Nora. But the members of UrbanArias handled those questions with the same grace and openness that they had for the standards like, “What was your favorite part to work on?” Their commitment to the talk-back made it feel like part of the performance rather than something tacked on afterwards, and I encourage you to think of it as the third act of She, After.

'Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Emily Pulley in ‘Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Overall, UrbanArias has created something that should appeal to art lovers in general, whether they’re completely new to the opera or prone to arguing for their favorite version of Figaro. And not to be too theatre-nerdy about this, but the work absolutely nails the company’s mission – accessible, impressive, short, and open to the audience in a way that most art groups can only hope to achieve. Urban Arias walks the walk, and the audience reaps the benefits.

Running Time: One hour long, with no intermission.

She, After plays through November 17, 2013 at Artisphere – 1101 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 841-2787, or purchase them online.

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