Elizabeth Swados

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Michael Feingold

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Let's go cautiously. Anyone expecting to discover a theatre piece in Elizabeth Swados's Nightclub Cantata had better take a second look at the title. It is not an opera, not one of the Greek plays Miss Swados is famous for setting, not a revue, not a play. It is a cantata, that quirky form halfway between opera and oratorio, a setting of somewhat dramatic texts that is meant to be sung rather than acted. And it is a cantata meant for performance in a nightclub, where the audience can smoke, drink, and at least whisper during the show, can observe coolly rather than being mobilized in a body to participate vicariously….

Not, of course, a cantata in the normal sense of the word, for Swados does not write "normal" music. Her methods are monodic or responsive chant, recitative, patter-singing, the percussive use of unpitched sounds, intoning in unison or parallel thirds, and the repertory of clicks, shrieks, growls, and wails that we associate with birds, animals, and the tribal languages of Africa and Latin America. Swados is, in short, a neo-primitive—though her "primitivism" has more sophistication than a hundred years of hack composing in the traditional Western musical theatre, a fact that is pointed up by her choice of texts. No primitives here: Delmore Schwartz and Pablo Neruda, Muriel Rukeyser and Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara and Carson McCullers. If not for the wildly different nature of the music, it might be a Ned Rorem concert….

The discrepancy between the complex, intellectual texts and the simple, repetitive accents of the music is one source of the evening's power. Swados's directing style, like her composing style, is aggressive—not hostile, but hortatory—and it can make one reel as sentences containing a dozen delicate nuances are hurled at you, at top speed and peak fervor, by her impeccably drilled young automata. If I have a criticism of her method, it is that it is too tight, too breakneck-paced, too clipped; it wants the looseness that, in a cabaret, allows for warmth and the revelation of personality—author's as well as performer's….

Combined with the forcefulness of Swados's music, [her aggressive directing style] makes for an evening that is always powerful in its angularity, as it passes from the deeply moving and the humorous to numbers that are misguided or those that, at best, mark time. Only twice, I think, does Swados's method let her down at all: Once, at the very end of a lovely articulation of Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," where her recitative barrels past what is properly the dramatic climax of the anecdote. (On the other hand, cantatas aren't supposed to be dramatic, and Swados's choice not to emphasize this emotional moment redoubles the impact when she does emphasize what immediately follows.)

Second, in a harrowing account of concentration-camp language, by Isabella Leitner, the words simply go by too fast, and I have a feeling that less striving for high-speed intensity and effect (the choral shouts, the flashlights in the audience) would make the moment harrow that much more deeply. It would for me, anyway….

Footnote: Just to show you that the evening is not one of bleak intellectual austerity, I should add that "Indecision" is a very funny parody '50s rock number.

Michael Feingold, "Her Chants Are Sophisticated," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice. Inc., 1977), January 17, 1977, p. 83.

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