By Quinn Rigg
As leaves yellow day by day, decay pervades the air. The coming winter looms and falling temperatures coax people indoors; enrichment tends to turn inward when anything outside requires at least three layers of clothing.
In a season well-suited to introspection, Third Eye Theatre Ensemble seeks to challenge its audiences to discover and reflect in the wake of tragedy with Darkling.
Darkling is a spoken-word opera with music by Stefan Weisman and libretto by Anna Rabinowitz. The plot follows a woman (dubbed “Anna” in this production) trying to piece together her family’s history—a history largely erased by the tragedies of the Holocaust. This opera displays a series of vignettes focusing on Anna’s parents in 1930s Poland, as well as the experience of Polish Jews as a whole during the atrocities of German occupation. A synopsis of the plot and production history of Darkling may be found here.
This one-act opera is based directly off of Rabinowitz’s book-length poem of the same name, as is made clear by the language used throughout—long phrases weave intricate patterns of rhetoric. Rabinowitz’s words effectively highlight the confusion of unknowable loss. In the face of suffering, Rabinowitz dares to articulate the unthinkable. However, as she is an industrious wordsmith, Rabinowitz’s work would best be enjoyed with a thesaurus close at hand.
Meeting the challenge of Rabinowitz’s voluminous source material, Weisman composes an elaborate score filled with haunting dissonance and rhythmic complexity. Wesiman’s score beautifully captures the languid anguish of people trapped in calamity. Through the simplicity of a string quartet, Weisman creates anxious anticipation. This sonorous score creates a habitat where longing and hope thrive.
Third Eye Theatre Ensemble approaches Darkling with ambition and hunger. This ambition is evident from the first glimpse of Mariah Pendleton’s foreboding set and from the last pensive look at Benjamin L. White’s tactful lighting design. The rich aesthetic life of this production translates the yearning of spoken words into tangible physical space.
Music direction by Jason Carlson solidifies the unity of Third Eye’s design. Much of Weisman’s music underscores vast stretches of poetic speech, which Carlson seamlessly integrates into the opera’s action. Masterfully conducted by Gregory Tufts, the string quartet artfully conveys the cacophony of hurt through their symphonic expertise. Violinists Diana Ortiz and Melissa Arbetter, viola player Martina Skalova and cellist Caley Koch shine as lights in the darkness, using the language of music to support a story of anguish.
Director Susan Padveen tackles this piece with interesting perspective, taking bold risks in order to bring artistic synthesis to the chaos of Darkling’s circumstances. This proves to be an uphill battle, however, due to the sheer complexity of the material. This is a production within a space that thrives on nuance. The scrupulous language of the libretto and exacting intricacy of the score create a landscape of stimulus that is inherently and intentionally overwhelming; as such, moments of subtlety bring immense clarity to the clash of words and music. Padveen’s bold choices stimulate the senses with playful discovery, yet the action on stage can overstep the boundaries of the material’s pacing and the intimate confines of Theater Wit’s space.
Third Eye Theatre Ensemble has endeavored to unearth meaning from the debris of moral decay—to elucidate some reason in the aftermath of an apocalypse. This production brims with sincerity and well-crafted design, but the weight of its ambition leads the opera astray in its pursuit of candid discovery.
Reason may not always be found within chaos, but Third Eye Theatre Ensemble provides a platform to process what the unknowable. This production creates a dialogue through the presentation of bold new work, challenging its artists and audiences to move forward to the next day with more compassion than the one before. Wintry winds may blow leaves from the trees, but the spring always follows.
Third Eye Theatre Ensemble presents “Darkling” at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave. through October 27. More information and tickets may be found here.