Performance review: ‘Sandaya: Burmese Lessons’


The puppets in the production “Sandaya: Burmese Lessons.” (Courtesy of Alliance of New Music Theatre)
July 14, 2013

It is not part of the Capital Fringe Festival, but “Sandaya: Burmese Lessons” would fit right in. The multimedia, cross-cultural piece at the Atlas Performing Arts Center qualifies as more of a workshop than a full-scale staging, and in its roughed-out form, it offers many pleasures over nearly 21 / 2 hours, but occasional tedium, too.

First the pleasures — vivid examples of Burmese music, dance, puppetry and garb. “Sandaya” has brought together artists living in the United States or who traveled here from Burma for this production. Gifted percussionist Myanmar Pyi Kyauk Sein adds rich aural atmospherics, playing a circular set of small drums called a “put waing.” His energetic, tonally nuanced performance accompanies much of the action. This will remind some area theatergoers of composer/musician Tom Teasley’s work with Constellation Theatre’s shows.

Charming marionettes operated by master puppeteer U Tun Kyi often march into the midst of the action, among them a gossipy old woman and a somber monk-like figure. Dancer-actors Kyal Thee and Erle Taylor, a.k.a. Ko Than Win, play various characters and also don intensely ornate traditional costumes with headdresses like miniature temples. Then they execute dance steps of seemingly impossible control.

Produced by the experimentally minded Alliance for New Music-Theatre, “Sandaya” was scripted by artistic director Susan Galbraith, who also staged it. A few years ago, she met pianist Kit Young, who composed the piano score and plays it live onstage. Both women have lived extensively in the Far East, Young most particularly in Burma (also known as Myanmar), where she studied the Burmese style of piano composition and performance, Sandaya, which she re-creates in the show. We learn of its lack of obvious melody and chords and its emphasis on “virtuosic” timing and fingering. An improvisatory duet between Young and percussionist Kyauk Sein on the circle drums is a dazzler. Overall, Young’s piano score pleases an untrained ear with its cascades of notes. Songs composed by her, with a repeated lyric about the traveler’s “yearning, yearning” to soak up this new culture, while ably sung by Meghan McCall, have a song-cycle artiness that is distancing.

In an attempt to be all-encompassing, Galbraith’s script overreaches and under-explains, yet it could be honed. The linking thread is Young’s sojourn in Burma. The young musician witnesses some of that country’s darkest years under a harsh authoritarian regime that has only recently loosened its grip. As she arrives, played with a bit too much diffidence by McCall, the government has drastically devalued the currency, impoverishing its citizens. In a simple but effective scene, a young Burmese painter (excellent performance artist Chaw Ei Thein), wanders around the stage in a daze, tossing worthless paper money to the ground. The young American and the Burmese artist become friends. By play’s end, the painter has been jailed for using her art as a protest.

Performer Chaw Ei Thien. (Courtesy of Chaw Ei Thien)

A large, handsomely painted scroll unfolds on a kind of scaffold at center stage to help set the various scenes, but on the night this reviewer attended, projections intended for a larger screen at the back were mostly non-functioning. Even without that element, the show conjures plenty of atmosphere, if at too much length and in too soft a focus.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

Sandaya: Burmese Lessons

By composer Kit Young and writer Susan Galbraith. Directed by Galbraith. Lighting design, Chris Holland; backdrop paintings, Chaw Ei Thein; audiovisual design, Mark Perkins. About 21 / 2 hours, including intermission. Presented through July 21 by Alliance for New Music-Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993, Ext. 2; or visit atlasarts.org.

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