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More than academic: Butler jazz faculty reach out beyond campus in Jazz Kitchen debut

Controversy about the strength and sustenance that jazz's home in academia give to the music continues to be lively, as a visit or two to Jack Walrath's Jazz Trumpets Forum (on Facebook) will reconfirm. Whatever happened to learning your craft from older working role models on the bandstand, runs the nostalgic sentiment?

But there is little doubt that high school and college programs that develop jazz musicians are firmly entrenched, even indispensable. The narrow path presented by the dearth of all-ages performance opportunities is just one reason for not depending on the shrinking number of jazz nightclubs to nurture young musicians.

In that context, it's great to see teachers at the college level exhibit their expertise in the public sphere, as happened in one long set Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen when Butler University faculty took the stage.

In the future, it would be great to hear more originals from the group, but in any case there were some spicy arrangements to savor, starting with pianist Gary Walters' perky setting of Thelonious Monk's "Let's Cool One," which opened the set, and going on to alto saxophonist Matt Pivec's sensitively animated "Witch Hunt" (Wayne Shorter). I also enjoyed vocalist Erin Benedict's nimble version of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." It opened with the singer in dialogue with bassist Jesse Wittman and went on to explore some sparse textures without ever going slack.

Wrapping things up was a fitting tribute to the ultimate jazz educator, the late David Baker, in a romp through his "Kentucky Oysters," arranged by trombonist Rich Dole.  Walters contributed one of his several stunning solos of the set to that finale; he was also crucial to the success of several of Benedict's songs, an indicator of his long history accompanying singers, principally Carrie Newcomer.

As for the soloing in what seemed to be the gig's mostly jam-session profile, there was a particular thrill to drummer Jon Crabiel's setting aside sticks and brushes to etch an astute manual backdrop for Wittman's solo in "Alone Together," in which the front line was left to the reduced horn contingent of Dole and tenor saxophonist Sean Imboden, compatible partners and individualists as well. Crabiel continued with his hands in play, complemented by footwork on bass drum and hi-hat cymbals, in a richly varied solo turn.

Throughout, Butler student Kent Hickey was an adept substitute player on trumpet, setting down an especially incandescent solo in Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia."  Guitarist Sandy Williams, always tasteful and focused, was among the other soloists in that zesty excursion.

This exposition by the northside university's professorial class was sufficient indication that there's plenty of proof in the academic jazz pudding. I will be happy to anticipate more in the future.

Doors into the unknown: IRT's 'A Doll's House Part 2' takes up Nora's story 15 years after famous departure

Torvald leans in to make himself clear to Nora.
The natural feature of Norway best-known to the world is its fjords — narrow waterways to the sea that typically pass between steep cliffs. A brief online search of fjord images indicates that the definitive "steep cliffs" aren't inevitably a feature, and these more gradual bordering slopes are crucial to Ann Sheffield's scenic design for "A Doll's House Part 2," the Lucas Hnath drama that Indiana Repertory Theatre opened Friday night.

That communicates a lot of the meaning of this cheeky sequel to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 realistic tragedy of the collapse of a middle-class Norwegian marriage. The vistas awaiting Nora Helmer as she escapes from a role she finds disrespectful and confining vary ambiguously from the closed-in feeling of her domestic life to the promise of something more open, reaching to the sky.

The production's beautiful backdrop, with the deceptively gentle mountains bordering the water on both sides, is the mute natural frame for Nora's fate. The house that she left 15 years before is shockingly minimal in its
Returning home, Nora explains her long absence to Anne Marie.
furnishings. Between the visible outdoors and the oddly institutional appearance of the Helmer home's interior, we almost get all we need to know about what Part 2 has to communicate. Individually grasped liberty under restrictive social mores can be barren. In Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist formulation, we are condemned to freedom.

Director James Still takes an approach both playful and stark in the movement of the play's four characters: The returning Nora and her desperate agenda, her abandoned husband Torvald, the couple's daughter Emmy, and the household's longtime nanny and housekeeper Anne Marie. Their conversational maneuvers involve shifting chairs around like chess pieces, trying to regulate a proximity to each other that matches their words and suits their moods.

The circumstances of Nora's departure have upended family life and the Helmer reputation in their small town.
With difficulty the fleeing wife  and mother has painfully crafted a good living as a feminist writer under a pseudonym; the reason for her return, though it's revealed early, is so crucial that spoiler etiquette forbids me to divulge it here. The surprises with which Hnath lards his script are well-distributed and fortunately too well-grounded to strain credulity: Revelation of the sort of person Emmy has turned out to be as a young adult is a paradigm shift. When it comes, the feeling is not dismayingly obvious, but entirely natural. Hnath has thoroughly processed his great predecessor's uncanny skill at dissecting why people act the way they do.

He does so with a startling blend of raw emotional upheaval and manic comedy. He allows the four  — particularly Torvald and Nora as they rake over and stoke the embers of their long-dying marriage — to give vent to temper tantrums that skirt the edge of sit-com blowups today's audiences are familiar with. Obscene insults and foot-stamping find their way into elaborately well-articulated arguments. Whatever shocks Ibsen provided to audiences of his day are updated commandingly in the new play's language and this production's  detailed gestures, tense pauses, and frenetic movement. In character the actors occasionally address the audience, intensely broadening their arguments, as if to say "Can I get an amen?!"

At the summit of the virtuoso performances is Tracy Michelle Arnold's portrayal of Nora. The character's range of emotions, from her confident anti-marriage exposition in the first scene to the tortured neediness so variously evident later, get free rein. Yet there's never the sense that the characterization is off the rails or scattershot in its focus; there is an undeniable through line from entrance to exit. Arnold's Nora is neither a ninny nor a Nestor, but something infinitely more complex. Again, taking care to avoid specifics, let me simply indicate that her exit confirms and extends the tragic dimensions of the original play.

Becca Brown plays the Helmers' self-possessed daughter.
As Torvald, Nathan Hosner matches Arnold angst for angst. Torvald's discomfort at the unexpected return of his estranged wife sends seismic waves out from the stage. His face registered it all, lips curling and uncurling, cheek muscle twitching. Self-consciousness attains new heights, and Torvald talks about it, of course. Hosner also caught the comical dimension of an alpha male's insecurity in a world about to change into the 20th century's emergence of feminism. Critiques of marriage had been already launched in the turmoil of Ibsen's era, and the sequel's updated language forges a bond with progressive notions that were bubbling up many decades before sexual liberation was pharmaceutically enabled.

Becca Brown conveyed Emmy's blunt appraisal of her mother's behavior and its effects on the family. For the most part, Emmy is a cool customer, but Brown shifted into the character's emotional overdrive easily. Kim Staunton moved beyond the long-suffering maid stereotype she embodied at first to complete the four-sided exhibition of personal resentments and grievances, meeting fire with fire.

Alex Jaeger's costume designs were rich in period atmosphere, and the actors wore them magnificently, despite the flopping about required of Hosner and Arnold. Michelle Habeck's lighting and Tom Horan's sound complemented the action — assisting its dips and swirls, its soaring and plunging — at every turn. Besides being condemned to freedom, the people in "A Doll's House Part 2" helplessly live out another Sartrean condemnation: Hell is other people.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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