On Stage: Attack-ing a “Soap Opera”

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Attack Theatre is the company that gets a workout before it even makes a dance step. The set for its latest production, Soap Opera, has just been built. So everyone is helping to move a gaggle of chairs, stacked 10-high. Then there’s the issue of the sawdust, so they arm themselves with push brooms and a vacuum.

Co-founder Michele de la Reza mans the vacuum with a meticulous eye, all the while tossing out suggestions for the rehearsal. When she sits down to talk, she calls Soap Opera “a co-ordination feat,” a pretty meaningful phrase for this dancer/mother/housekeeper/teacher and who-knows-what-else.

But back to Soap. “We could never have created this piece ten years ago,” Michele asserts as she begins her daily stretch routine. “But it is very right for right now, inspired by very real things in our life.”

She explains that the piece is “an amazing hybrid” of Attack’s work with Quantum Theatre, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and at the New Hazlett Theater.  When the Attackers are at the Hazlett, the dancers are responsible for the end product. But the company’s work with theater and opera mean entirely different creative processes.

With Soap Opera, which will be performed at the Pittsburgh Opera in The Strip District, it has become a fascinating blend of all those elements. “And it was created by us!” Michele exclaims.

When they chose opera as the foundation of the latest production, that meant touching on themes of betrayal, remorse, death (“because it’s not an opera unless someone dies”) and love. But the company wanted to do it with contemporary relevance.

That’s where the soaps came in — these “crazy, bigger-than-life things” — and a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

They then went in search of a contextual framework and Scheherezade, where a clever woman told fascinating stories to a sultan to prolong her life, came to the surface. It gave them the notion of story and the power of story.

But they put a twist on it; now the man was losing his life.

“You know during the first two minutes that he is going to die,” Michele explains. “It is not a struggle for his life. It is more a struggle in the community to let go and to go through the process of letting go.”

And in that moment, they all realized that this production would also be a reflection of the passing of friend, supporter and board member Mike Grzymkowski. As it so happened, the production would debut during the third anniversary of his death.

With that “everything became personal” as well.

Soap Opera isn’t an “authentic” story about Mike. But it was another layer, through the use of comforting arm movements that brought a flood of memories and a hug line. But they also laughed because Mike wasn’t particularly a fan of opera.

“Maybe we’re finishing the story for ourselves,” Michele concedes.

So the couple became accomplished musicians — he a pianist, she a singer. They imagined him composing for her. And a broken piano becomes a part of his new identity. There is a raft of opera music, some familiar like I Pagliacci or Samson and Delilah, others less so, like Aubert’s Poèmes Arabes.

The eight dancers frame the story. In their minds they are the “physicalization of what’s going on in their minds, the physicalization of what’s going on in their hearts. We’re the emotional pathways.”

But then there is a “sword fight kick line,” in keeping with the craziness that can be Attack Theatre. And a large boulder, which husband and co-founder Peter Kope discovered at Construction Junction, was used for target practice by Robert de Niro in the Tom Cruise film, Jack Treacher. It was then featured in Rick Sebak’s latest documentary, 25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh.

As Michele puts it, “There is more than enough of Attack Theatre breaking its own conventions.”

So this Soap Opera will be dark, goofy, funny and poignant, with enough range so that everyone can bring their own story to the table.

See Listings for more information on this week’s performances.

Click on any photo to begin slideshow. All photos by ©Martha Rial.

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