Windfall Theatre’s “Green Sneakers,” as real-life as opera gets

By - May 16th, 2011 06:41 pm
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Baritone Larry Birkett, featured in Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Green Sneakers” at Windfall Theatre. Windfall photo.

Ricky Ian Gordon’s GREEN SNEAKERS – an opera for baritone, empty chair, string quartet and piano arrived in Milwaukee this weekend, thanks to Windfall Theatre.

Gordon wrote GREEN SNEAKERS this mini opera Gordon wrote to help himself come to grips with his partner’s death from AIDS.

“I had a sense of the atmosphere that the work would have,” Gordon said, in an interview with Opera Today. “There was a day after Jeffrey’s death when I was staring into our closet from the vast desolation of our bed. These sad little green sneakers suggested a text about the day we bought them together. It poured out of me and ended up a cycle of poems that tells the story of that day and the period after it — all the way up to Jeffrey’s death.”

A number of my friends are battling this terrible disease, but anyone who has lost a loved one to any illness can relate to GREEN SNEAKERS.  Gordon’s heartfelt writing has no political tilt. It simply pours out the feelings of love lost and the regrets that came along the way.

Windfall Theatre’s sparse set focuses attention on Gordon’s script.  Windfall’s intimate (and sold out) space brings you closer to the moving story, an emotional rollercoaster ride. Baritone Larry Birkett plays the composer in this opera. He tells the story of his partner, Jeffrey, and his journey to death. The accompanying string quartet (violinists Nancy Maio and Jessicca Williams, violist Maria Gesiorak and cellist Beth Bender) affirm the emotions the lyrics express directly from beginning to end.

The story traces struggles and frailty that come with approaching death.  Even fragrances can cause Jeffrey such agony that one number is called Blue Dust Mask.

Two Months Later relates both the frailty of Jeffrey and the selfishness of Ricky. It leads to the pinnacle of the opera, with Ricky holding rosary beads proclaiming that Jeffrey is going home.  That was the moment to reach for the tissues.

Props representing personal memorabilia adorned the on-stage piano. Gordon placed personal items there to help him cope with Jeffrey’s death.  Over the course of the opera, Birkett moved the items one by one to suitcase. Finally, a bare piano symbolized the empty space left in Ricky’s life.

The music is flowing and unbalanced, just like life itself.  It fit perfectly with the story being told.  Gordon, Birket and Windfall Theatre did Jeffrey justice.

GREEN SNEAKERS is playing at Village Church Arts, 130 E. Juneau Ave. It will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 20-21. Tickets are $20 in advance (414 332-3963) and $25 at the door.

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