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Performance review: Killsonic at the NOW Festival at REDCAT

July 23, 2010 |  3:30 pm

Killsonic Downtown has recently been a hotbed for surreal productions about Iraq. This spring the Taper mounted Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," and now there's Killsonic's wild and wacky opera-in-progress, "Tongues Bloody Tongues."

Seen Thursday at REDCAT as part of the annual three-week multidisciplinary New Original Works (NOW) Festival,  the excerpt, "11 July 1926" -- which repeats Saturday -- features a goose-stepping tubaist, a deadpan Saddam Hussein and a chorus of chattering femmes fatales, er, parrots.

Killsonic is the 30-piece musicians' collective that plans to stage the completed work -- a factious history of Iraq in the era of British rule -- as a three-hour parade opera (a procession through the streets with Rose Parade-type floats). Peter Sellars, take note.

In the interim, the black box space of REDCAT suffices. Dorian Wood's art direction -- sumptuous crimson and ink-black sets and costumes in varying textures of linens, velvets and trash-bag satins -- is picture perfect. (Wood also tackles the role of Kinahan Cornwallis, an erstwhile British ambassador to Iraq.)

With Michael Anthony Ibarra's musical direction, Joseph Tepperman's twisted libretto and the committed performances of the ensemble and its major players (Leah Harmon as Gertrude Bell, Ibarra as Hussein and Tepperman as the rake-bearing farmer Haji Naji) this 45-minute excerpt soars on wings of absurdity.  Bell, an English writer, explorer and friend of T.E. Lawrence who founded what would later become the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, is depicted here on the last day of her life, imagining one final poem.

Harmon's is an inspired portrayal.  Her swooping vibrato-less voice, sometimes in Gilbert and Sullivan patter mode, or even Rossiniesque, is akin to Dawn Upshaw's on acid. Tepperman's words are a mash-up of Gertrude Stein and Lewis Carroll.  The resultant libretto alternately resembles Mel Gibson's latest text messages, a nonsensical, grammarless enigma, with brain-teasing passages (“Where we know nowhere”), butting up against more poetic moments (“ice's moaning tongue”).

And who knew Hussein could conduct, albeit baton-less?  When he's not giving a quirky history lesson, unveiling tiny maps of the Middle East and uttering inanities (“It is not important, I continue”) or the occasional neo-profundity (“History is not a contest”), this despot reveals some fine musical chops: The mix of trumpets, trombones and tubas with woodwinds, accordions and drums -- along with the afore-mentioned chorus -- is the beating heart of Killsonic.

Moving around the REDCAT space, the musicians suck you into a guffawing, oompah world that ultimately seduces, its sound a glorious exhalation of brassy breath accented by lots of rat-a-tat percussion. That the group finally marches off stage, never to return for a bow, makes one wanting more.

Which can't be said for the evening's opener, “The Exile of Petie Delarge.” Directed by Maureen Huskey and written by Jennifer Barclay, this misguided mess concerns a band of renegade students, led by Erica Bitton's strident Petie, railing against their professors, morals and society in general. Hmm. This agonizing piece of hubris gives the SLA, those Patty Hearst kidnappers headed by General Field Marshal Cinque, the nostalgic whiff of real revolutionaries as performance art.

-- Victoria Looseleaf

Killsonic at the NOW Festival. (This program repeats Saturday at REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A., 8:30 p.m.  The festival continues with different performers July 29-31 and Aug. 5-7.  See www.redcat.org for schedule.  $18 per show.  Festival pass, $36.  (213) 237-2800.

Photo: Killsonic, in a dress rehearsal. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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