The Washington Post

Opera review: Artisphere’s ‘Photo-Op’

I guess it’s an opera — at least that’s how it’s billed by conductor Robert Wood, composer Conrad Cummings and librettist James Siena. But “Photo-Op,” which opened at Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre on Saturday, could just as easily be sold as a ballet, as pure political satire or simply as a theater piece. It doesn’t matter: It’s wonderful fun, wonderfully directed and performed and, despite that fact that it was written in 1989, eerily timely.

Originally conceived as a satire on the campaign speeches and personas of a pair of competing presidential candidates, the two main characters in this production are a candidate and his wife, but it’s not easy, at times, to discern who is really the candidate and who is the helpmate. In a post-performance discussion, Cummings and director Alan Paul talked about the intentionally flexible structure of the piece, which allows for all sorts of realizations.

In this production, baritone Michael Mayes — terrific as the candidate, bigger than life, jutting of jaw and adorned with a Reaganesque pompadour — parades his pasted-on smile and fake bonhomie before an enormous American flag backdrop. Soprano Laurie Williamson — his sometimes adoring, sometimes steely-spined wife — urges him on with intensity and unflagging energy, and, together, the two of them spin out lines of text with machine-gun speed that morph into gibberish as they repeat the lines with ever-changing accents and inflections.

An energetic but mute ensemble of nine actor/dancers surrounds the pair with the busyness of functionaries, their clipboards and files at the ready; at turns, they were an adoring crowd or a troop of soldiers ready to die if need be.

The orchestra consisted of a violin, cello, woodwind and keyboard quartet expertly conducted by Wood. The music — minimalist with a touch of almost wistful lyricism — nailed the humor.

The cast of “Photo-Op,” at Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre. (Clinton Brandhagen)

There are performances on Sept. 14 and 15 that shouldn’t be missed.

The reviewer is a freelance writer.

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