“The Medium” is the message

A scene from Act I of Third Eye Theatre Ensemble's production of of Menotti's "The Medium."
A scene from Act I of Third Eye Theatre Ensemble’s production of of Menotti’s “The Medium.”

Where: Collaboraction Pentagon Theater, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through Nov. 2
Phone: 847-430-4341

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Just in time for Halloween, Third Eye Theatre Ensemble is now offering an engaging production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s short, two-act opera “The Medium.” This haunting work, running just over an hour, premiered in 1946, and has lost none of its power to disturb.

Menotti’s story (he was both composer and librettist) centers on a fake medium known as Madame Flora, whose life is dedicated to conning people into believing she connects them with their dead loved ones, and conning herself into believing that booze is the best source of nutrition.

Monica, her daughter, and Toby, a mute orphan who lives with them, assist with the fake séances. The night which changes Madame Flora’s life sees Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau come for their regular session to contact their son who died as a toddler, joined by newcomer Mrs. Nolen, who searches for a way to reach her dead teenaged daughter. After the razzle-dazzle which convinces the three clients they’ve had their moneys’ worth, Madame Flora experiences something which might have been caused by Monica or Toby or just might be contact from the beyond. It obsesses and possesses her, causing her to blame Toby as well as bring to the surface her own guilt as a scam artist, all leading to a tragic climax.

The Flat Iron Fine Arts Building housing the theater is a ramshackle affair sporting what must surely be one of the city’s oldest elevators as well as warren-like corridors which twist and turn and often change elevation without warning. When you walk into the performance room, your first thought is that it’s very much on the seedy side, with an exposed ceiling showing all the circulatory systems of the building and walls which have undoubtedly experienced much violence over the years.

What might have seemed a liability to others was turned into a tremendous asset by set designer Jimmy Jagos. He sets up Madame Flora’s home as a dumpy, cluttered eyesore entirely appropriate to the dumpy-looking and cluttered-minded Madame Flora. Rose Freeman does a fine job as director, keeping the clients in the parts of the home which are shabby yet tidy, and having the other characters move easily about the rest of the place, clearly resigned to the chaos and jumble they live in. It’s a generously sized space where the action shifts effortlessly from one part of the room to the next.

The audience is seated along three sides of the room in chairs only two rows deep. So every viewer is close to the proceedings, real flies-on-the-wall to every scene.

The singing is, without exception, committed and draws out the various layers of the characters. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Runge as Madame Flora creates a frightening portrait of an awful woman who cannot constructively confront her own guilt without benefit of the bottle.

Soprano Caroline Wright delivers Monica’s gorgeous arias with gleaming sound and the innocence of a child. She is convincing as the only person in the story who has come to terms with her life in any sensible manner.

Mary Lutz Govertsen (Mrs. Gobineau), Christopher Skyles (Mr. Gobineau) and Adrianne Blanks (Mrs. Nolan) each tenderly conveys the heartbreak which the death of a child visits upon a parent and they never turn these sympathetic characters into mere saps, even when rejecting Madame Flora’s admission that she has cheated them.

Will Green travels across the room with lithe, dance-like movement and without speaking a word earns affection from the audience for mute Toby.

For good stretches of this production you forget that the only instrument playing is a piano. Credit Jason Carlson, the musical director who is also a member of the music faculty at Northwestern. He gives a multi-faceted performance using the composer’s own piano reduction and is always attentive to the needs of the singers.

The lighting by Julian Pike is an essential part of the success of the production. Particularly impressive was his ability to help maintain the story’s spooky quality without constantly resorting to darkness. His use of color adds to the moodiness.

This is the inaugural production of Third Eye Theatre Ensemble. They spent months getting it right, and it shows, even down to the smallest detail. There were free mints to stifle coughs, no long waits at will-call, seats near the door reserved for latecomers and every program included the ensemble’s business card. Skyles, the co-founder along with Rena Ahmed, spoke briefly to the audience before the performance, reading from a prepared text on his smart phone and made the shutting off of his cell when he finished into a joking request for everyone else to do the same, putting the audience in a smiling mood even before the first note sounded.

The two largest, most demanding roles have been double cast. Half the performances will feature Rena Ahmed as Madame Flora and Angela Born as Monica.

I left not only looking forward to hearing more from this new opera troupe, but with respect for the crazy but loveable building they selected as their first venue, which I have since learned has been a haven for artists since 1898.