Queer revolutions by Philip Venables

Concerts 11.07.2023

Inseparable and complementary, composer Philip Venables and director Ted Huffman have teamed up to present their third stage work, The Faggots and their Friends between Revolutions, at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. A narrative and sound action that links theater and music, fable and political manifesto, in a deliberately joyful and singularly imaginative tone.  

The provocatively-titled book is based on Larry Mitchell and Ned Asta 's 1977 book of the same name, reissued on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which marked the emergence of the LGBTQ+ movement in the USA. It tells the story of the struggle of the homosexual community and of all the oppressed - women, migrants, the disenfranchised - who want to live with their heads held high in the face of the oppression of a normative, patriarchal society: "It's an incredible book, very childlike and innocent, which can at the same time contain violence and tackle very deep subjects," Philip Venables tells us. "It's not so much a book about the liberation of homosexuals, but rather a queer book about the liberation of humanity.

The key word, in Huffman's staging as in Venables' score, is community: "We tried not to establish a hierarchy on the stage, placing each of the sixteen performers on an equal footing. They are less characters in a fiction with a precise identity than different avatars of themselves, artists". Mostly multi-instrumentalists, actors as much as singers and dancers, they are all embarked on this dystopian journey to the land of Ramrod (an imaginary city), told like "an old biblical story", in Venables' words, where the "Faggots" cross paths with the Fairies, the Queens... "and like to perform for each other".

The Pavillon noir stage is bare, and the lighting (by Bertrand Couderc) is essential to the dramaturgy. Instruments, costumes and props are laid out in the courtyard and garden, and the performers change outfits on sight, avoiding the entrances and exits of traditional theater. Everything is mobile, including the upright piano, the harpsichord and the organ, which appear and disappear at will to allow the troupe to move freely on stage, sometimes united by the same gesture and the same word in high-voltage sequences that multiply the force of the claim tenfold. For example, the members of the community (including Yashani Perinpanayagam, who provides the musical direction) all hold a black plastic bucket, which they bang together in chorus in one of the show's loudest sequences. A bell, suspended in the air and within easy reach, signals certain scene changes and punctuates the narrative, making the formal division of the show into successive tableaux very clear. 

In "Faggots", the text is spoken as much as sung, and always accompanied by an instrument, like the Baroque "continuo" supporting the narration of the characters in the opera. The harpsichord and organ already mentioned, as well as lutes, harp and viola da gamba (as in Monteverdi), bring their different colors alongside other modern instruments, saxophones, accordions and flutes, always there to add their expressive vocal lines to the spoken word, or to reinforce the voices in songs with refrains. On the other hand, there's often a humming voice when the instrument plays solo. Without ever practicing quotation, Venables readily evokes the technique of pastiche, flirting with the ancient repertoire as well as with folk and jazzy music. 

"The sixteen artists chosen have a great knowledge of Baroque music and theater. They are encouraged to improvise, as the space-time is more open than in my first two operas", confides the composer. "So we start with a 'skeleton' and then let the artists take it from there: we even encourage them to create their own performance from the basic elements provided", he adds, once again emphasizing the collaborative dimension of his work. He also lets each of the singers express themselves, from baritone (transgender American singer Katherine Goforth) to countertenor, through fabulous solos (by French soprano Mariamielle Lamagat and Omani mezzo Deepa Johnny) that give the measure of each singer's excellence. Within this joyous community, non-binary artist Kit Green acts as "Mr. Loyal", driving the action like the chorypheus in Greek tragedy. She's in a tailored pink jumpsuit (colorful, with costumes by Theo Clinkard) for her show a third of the way through, when she addresses the audience in non-supertitled English to engage them in song. Her humor, tact and elegance are unanimously applauded! Choreographer, dancer and actress Yandass is also a very active and impressive soloist, taking the audience to task in a muscular, loud-mouthed "round" in which every word is beaten out by percussion. It's also one of the sequences that builds in tension, rallying the voices of all her friends.

"It's been a long time since the last revolutions/and fags and their friends still aren't free ". This is the refrain chanted by the community at the beginning and end of this hour-and-forty-minute show. The almost funereal tubular bells accompany the music of the epilogue, a sort of primitive chant played by the flutes in a ritualistic atmosphere. Revolutions are never over: let's remain attentive and vigilant.

Michèle Tosi

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, le 9-07-2023 au Pavillon noir
Philip Venables (b. 1979) and Ted Hufman (b. 1977): The Faggots and their Friends Between Révolutions, a baroque fantasy based on the book of the same name by Larry Mitchell and Ned Asta; Music by Philip Venables, direction and text by Ted Huffman; choreography and costumes by Theo Clinkard; sets by Rosalie Elnile; lighting by Bertrand Couderc; sound by Simon Hendry, dramaturgy by Scottee. Performers: Yshani Perinpanayagam ; Kerry Bursey ; Jacob Garside ; Katherine Goforth, Kit Green, Conor Gricmanis, Deepa Johnny, Mariamielle Lamagat, Eric Lamb, Themba Mvula, Meriel Price, Collin Shay, Joy Smith, Sally Swanson, Yandass.

Photos © Tristan Kenton


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