Chicago Opera Theater Presents TAKING UP SERPENTS Review — Sounds of Pentecostal Zeitgeist

We first hear a flute in a climb that goes high and then turns a corner to find a new corner, and then a previously unexplored height to scale anew.  Perhaps this flute motif, which we will hear repeatedly as the performance unfolds, is giving voice to the questions about faith and belief that animate this story.  It seems to be finding cracks in the wall to move forward.

Chicago Opera Theater TAKING UP SERPENTS
Chicago Opera Theater TAKING UP SERPENTS
Composer Kamala Sankaram, librettist and stage director Jerre Dye, and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya on the set of Taking Up Serpents

Finding cracks, we later hear our main protagonist Kayla (Alexandra Loutsion) sing, is where God gets in.   This is Kayla’s story. She works in a discount drug store but seems to be ever contemplating the past that came before, and where faith fits into her world.  The parking lot where her co-workers catch a smoke might seem an unlikely place to contemplate the grandeur of the Creator, but it is where her thoughts seem to dwell no matter where she be or what she is doing.

Kayla’s before story comes in the form of oversized Daddy (Michael Mayes).  Glory! Glory! he sings in her remembered moments, as bluegrass notes swell the score. He bends backwards as the spirit seizes him, signaled by percussion at a gallop.  Mayes has a magnetism that pierces a camera’s distance, in this reviewer’s opinion—a force of nature that seems typecast for his role.  Into the electric sway of his booming voice and the music swell, comes his wife Nelda (Leah Dexter) who speaks in tongues operatic style, her powerful trained voice giving us a studied frenzy spotted with feral spicing. Meanwhile, the projected images show us the snakes that this Pentecostal Church flirts with to show their devotion to God and unwavering faith in God’s will.

The story moves from parking lot, to bus ride, to Daddy’s hospital bed, where he lies in a near-death coma after succumbing to a snake bite.  Mostly though, the story lives in the Kayla’s past where we gradually piece together her close bond with Daddy before he was saved and after.  No champion of women’s equality he—Kayla had to reconcile that Daddy dismisses her as weak as woman -weak as Eve- same-same.

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You won’t feel like you are watching a film or TV show, but there are many cinematic flourishes enriching the experience.  Film clips show us a young Kayla as the libretto sings of memories. The camera snakes through snake skins.  Three singers in closeups bring us the clamor of the bus ride home, reminding us what the word zoom really meant before it became a noun.

For those, like this writer, who are outside the world where contemplating faith and God’s ways is a main focus, the story line might similarly strike as less than compelling.  It’s the flourishes of the score though that are the glue—both in the crescendos that shout of the religious rapture and the subtle almost metronome-like beep chords that remind us in the final scenes we are in a hospital room with a dying man.

As rousing and uplifting as a Gospel choir in full swing? Not by this writer’s lights.  Creatively stretching the opera canon in new directions?  Absolutely!  Taking Up Serpents  is a top pick for those who are interested in boundary pushing operatic scores. For this writer, composer Kamala Sankaram is one to keep an eye and ear on.

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CAST:

Kayla: Alexandra Loutsion
Nelda: Leah Dexter
Daddy: Michael Mayes

Reba: Annie Rosen
Young Mother: Morgan Middleton
Save Mart Worker / Bus Driver: Justin Berkowitz
Save Mart Customer / Queer Kid: Rachel Blaustein

Supernumerary: Emma Claire Stace as Young Ka

CREATIVE TEAM:

Composer: Kamala Sankaram
Librettist & Director: Jerre Dye
Conductor: Lidiya Yankovskaya

Costume Designer: Brenda Winstead
Lighting Designer: David Lee Bradke
Wig & Makeup Designer: Rebecca A. Scott

ORCHESTRA:

Violin 1: Pasquale Laurino
Violin 2: Wendy Benner
Viola: Vannia Phillips
Cello: Mark Lekas
Bass: Christian Dillingham
Piano: Yasuko Oura
Flute/Piccolo: Alyce Johnson
Oboe: Erik Andrusyak
Clarinet: Daniel Won
Bassoon: Lewis Kirk
French Horn: Steven Replogle
Guitar: Steve Roberts
Percussion: George Blanchet

When:

For purchase through March 2 7:30 PM (and then on demand stream is available for 72 hours.

Where:

Online

Tickets:

$20

Tickets are available for purchase on the Chicago Opera Theater website until 7:30 pm CST on Tuesday, March 2.

Chicago Opera Theater continues its season with the concert reading of Matthew Recio and Royce Vavrek's new The Puppy Episode on March 20th.

For more information visit the Chicago Opera Theater website.

Photos:  Sean Su, courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater.

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Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.

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