Elements of Skylight's 'El Cimmaron' resonate

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

January 9, 2014


MILWAUKEE - A one-man opera, the true story of a slave in Cuba, a quartet of astounding musicians, an unusual set design with many symbolic props - these are some of the elements that constitute the stunning production at Skylight Music Theatre for one more weekend. 

“El Cimarron,” an unusual operatic experience composed by Hans Werner Henze and directed by Eugenia Arsenis, is a tour de force for actor and singer Eric McKeever. He has a voice that can soar to unexpected heights and can resonate with power and beauty. He, with the four musicians who accompany him, leaves us enthralled for 75 minutes.

As McKeever smoothly moves about the stage, reconfiguring it to change venues and advance his story, we marvel at his vocal and narrative abilities. Music director Viswa Subbaraman plays two roles as one of the percussionists and as director. The music, provided by Nathan Wysock on guitar, Scott Mitlicka, who alternated on various flutes and a piccolo, and Michael Lorenz, the second percussionist, is eerie and atonal, very fitting for this tale of oppression, anxiety and frustration.

The piece is subtitled “Biography of the Runaway Slave Esteban Montej,”a man of African descent who was born in Cuba. He worked on the sugar plantatation from the age of 10 and was treated as a Cimarron, a wild one. We follow his life from his early years to his escape into the surrounding forest, where he learned to survive on his own. These were probably his happiest years despite the fears of being caught and punished and being haunted by ghosts.

After the Cubans won their freedom from Spanish rule, Esteban returned and worked again in the sugar industry, but life was not much better for blacks, who were still regarded as peons. Despite the many hardships of his life, this strong, brave man lived to be 113. The material for this historic opera was gathered from interviews with him when he was 104 years old. By means of his memories, we get a picture of almost a century of Cuban history from 1860 to Castro’s takeover.

One of the most fascinating features of this piece is the set devised by Lisa Anne Schlenker and her use of props. Ropes and chains and a large convoluted tree dominate the stage. There are also bright pieces of fabric that are used to symbolize women, priests’ vestments or shelter. The lighting design by Noelle Stollmack also contributes to mood and often reflects Esteban’s sensitivity to the beauty of nature.

The whole package bespeaks the agonies of injustice but also the strength of the human spirit that finds ways to survive.  “El Cimarron” resonates long after the final bows are taken. Director Eugenia Arsenis has created a searing production that will be long remembered. Don’t miss this unusual offering.