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Cleveland Play House, Cleveland Orchestra And GroundWorks DanceTheater Join FusionFest Forces To Present ‘A Soldier’s Tale’

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By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer

It takes bravery to put on a show about cowardice. Especially if that show happens to be Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” in a revised version featuring a libretto by author Kurt Vonnegut, which pulls no punches in a blunt denouncement of war.

But that’s not all. It also takes courage for the Cleveland Play House, the Cleveland Orchestra and GroundWorks DanceTheater — participants all in FusionFest 2010 — to share the project equally and inject it with wholly new choreography.

“The opportunity to create a strong creative collaboration from scratch was one we really wanted to take advantage of,” said Seth Gordon, associate artistic director of the Play House and director of “A Soldier’s Tale.” Gordon will leave the Play House in May after nine years for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

“It was a direction we really wanted the festival to go in.”

It’s a bold direction — and another landmark for the 5-year-old multidisciplinary arts festival begun by Play House artistic director Michael Bloom.

Stravinsky’s original, completed in 1918, is an hourlong theatrical work with dance about a soldier who abdicates his soul to the devil by trading his violin for material wealth.

“Even if we did the original, it’s not something most orchestras would program,” said Tito Munoz, assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor of the seven-piece “Soldier’s Tale” ensemble.

Vonnegut’s version, by contrast, trades that folk tale adapted by C.F. Ramuz for a piece of grim nonfiction based on Eddie Slovik, a soldier in World War II who was the last American to be shot for desertion, in 1945. His story was first told in the book “The Execution of Private Slovik” and was later immortalized in a film starring Martin Sheen.

“It’s a stepping-off point for Vonnegut to challenge the tyranny of the military and ask the questions he wants to ask,” said David Shimotakahara, director of GroundWorks and the creator of new choreography that fleshes out the story. “The world of the play can be pretty stark.”

By way of roles for actors, this version of “Soldier’s Tale” has four: Slovik, a military policeman, a nurse and the general, who doubles as a narrator.

Gordon, who has presented the work at other theaters with input from Vonnegut himself before his death in 2007, said the script follows Slovik as he comes to understand and then face the consequences of his refusal to fight. What begins in a linear fashion, he said, grows increasingly abstract as the gruesome punishment nears

“It’s definitely tricky, but it’s also fun to collaborate on this level,” Munoz said. “The players are superexcited. They never get to do things like this.”

Such unusual material and musical forces, though, left the three-company team few options when it came to filling out the program. Happily, Munoz was aware of a score that fit the bill exactly and was in fact intended as a complement: “Catch and Release,” by Esa-Pekka Salonen.


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Story compliments of The Plain Dealer