Angel's Bone: Disturbing the comfortableReview
Re:Naissance Opera and Sound the Alarm Music Theatre have a reputation for taking risks and bringing modern, relevant productions to Vancouver and across the country, and they certainly succeeded with Angel’s Bone, a co-production with Loose Tea Music Theatre, Array Music, and Turning Point Ensemble.
The stage is set with a number of white pillars on which projections are laid throughout the performance. Before it begins, statistics about human trafficking in Canada and across the world are projected, informing the audience of how prevalent and insidious of a problem it is, even in today, and how most of the victims are children. This production has been informed by a “Social Context Committee” throughout the development process, consisting of social workers, sex trafficking survivors, and other experts in this area. They introduce the piece and its importance to give a sense of the immediacy and personal nature of the performance.
One audience member commented “If you enjoyed this opera, you weren’t paying attention” and I think that’s bang on. This piece is difficult. From the music, to the staging, to the subject matter, this production is disturbing, unsettling and extremely raw. The score is very atonal, jarring, percussive, and unpredictable. Between the complex layering of parts between singers, orchestra, and pre-recorded sound, the effect is a deluge on the senses, with no place for the audience to feel comfortable, or prepared, and I believe that is very much the intention of the music - keeping everyone on edge and never having a space to feel secure.
The story uses two angels fallen to earth, and then exploited by a husband and wife for money as an allegory for sex trafficking, an allegory that gets less subtle and more disturbing as the show continues. Eliza Bagg as Girl Angel brought a profound vulnerability to her role, the girl desperate for any kind of affection as she carries on being exploited. At one point, she’s made to recite her exploitation while the husband films (and broadcasts) her doing so, and it was profound and deeply upsetting.
Asitha Tennekoon as Boy Angel brought a tour-de-force performance, with an incredibly difficult score, plucking stratospheric high notes out of thin air and imparting the desperate rage of his captivity. He was absolutely spectacular and incredibly emotionally compelling throughout.
Alyssa Samson and Alexander Dobson as Mrs. and Mr. X.E. respectively had the difficult task of bringing to life two heartless, merciless traffickers. Watching Dobson parse out tiny doses of affection to Bagg (Girl Angel) as a means to continuously manipulate and exploit her absolutely made my skin crawl. His remorseless use of this innocent for his own means was more villainous than most fictional villains we can imagine. Dobson was vocally intense and powerful, and used his strong physical and vocal presence to further subdue the Angels. Samson was more subtle of a captor - both exploiting and playing the victim, expertly imbuing this kind of cruel character with so much realism. Seeing a villain who is using people for their own ends, and then taking no accountability for their actions, and blaming others is all too real and chillingly poignant.
The chorus played multiple roles throughout, from clients to passers-by, to narrators, all while navigating an intricate, challenging score with expert skill.
Navigating this epic undertaking was Music Director Naomi Woo, whose expertise and incredible precision kept this massive piece and thousands of cues completely in place, reigning in some formidable forces and many technical challenges with the consummate skill of the musicians of Turning Point and Array Music behind her.
The ensemble deserves a special mention as their precision was incredible - moving set pieces constantly that were also used as projection screens, so having to hit precise marks over and over again was quite the task, but it was done quickly and quietly, with every set piece hitting their mark for the next technical setup. And the projections themselves were a huge highlight, both as underscoring, or action in the show - such as text messages from clients asking if the angels would “Do anything?”.
The ending of the show itself is no reprieve - it shows the continuing cycle of exploitation that ever continues, and the scars that will never truly heal. A lesson for us all of the insidious danger that this problem poses.