Monday, December 2, 2019

PSU Opera’s “Mirror Game” reflects gender bias and distorted values in hi tech world

Left to right: Lydia O'Brien, Eric Olson, Maeve Stier, Avesta Mirashrafi, Madeleine Tran
Inspired by the Me Too movement and the quick rise and fall of charismatic Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, Mirror Game, a brand new opera commissioned by PSU Opera and presented on November 29 in Lincoln Hall Studio Theater, touched and torched many issues that affect women in world of hi tech. Set in a Silicon Valley company that produces video games, Mirror Game, written by composer Celka Ojakangas with librettist Amy Punt, can be seen as a cautionary tale for women and basically anyone who uses deception to achieve “success.”

Delivered in 80 minutes without intermission, Mirror Game, covered a lot of territory and suffered just a tad because it sped by at a fast pace. Yet, the skillful directions of Kristine McIntyre worked well with a strong cast led by Maeve Stier in the central role of Cybil, a coder who schemes her way to the top of her company, running over her colleagues and her lover in the process. In the final scene, Cybil’s perfidy is exposed to her colleagues and the general public, and she is left alone.

Like many cautionary tales, everything starts innocently enough. In Mirror Game, we follow Cybil and fellow coders Melody and Olivia, all of whom have enough gaming prowess to be accepted into a male-dominated team at a startup in Silicon Valley. Opportunities to be a “team player” require each woman to go along with the sexualized overtures of the CEO Rohm, and to a lesser extent Tony, the team’s manager. Cybil learns how to play along, but she then rejects her lover, Olivia. Cybil develops a marketing strategy for her company’s video game. That morphs into selling the game as a way for girls to become free of bullying. The success of Cybil’s new strategy propels her ahead, and her own machinations bring her to break into Rohm’s computer. Events turn quickly so that Rohm is disgraced and Cybil promoted to CEO. But then the company finds that she has trolled herself online and created a totally false impression.

Brilliant acting and singing by Maeve Stier created a totally captivating Cybil with an impressive palette of emotions that included pouting, charming, and scheming. Lydia O’Brien’s Olivia gripped us with her anguish. Madeleine Tran was playfully rambunctious in the role of Melody. Eric Olson created an earnest Tony, who fell for Cybil and was crushed after he learned of her deception. Avesta Mirashrafi had plenty of swagger to make Rohm a believable playboy-like CEO. Wyatt Jackson distinguished himself as the Voice. Music director and pianist Chuck Dillard had the right touch for the singers.

Ojakangas’s score for electronic piano and synthesized music evoked the gaming world with an agile, lightweight texture. The dialogs between characters were sung, and Ojakangas sprinkled in duets, trios, and ensemble numbers that worked well. She also included timely arias for the main characters, including a 60’s styled pop number that Tony sang.

Punt kept things moving at a fast pace and threw in references to the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Adams, and others along the way. Punt and Ojakangas made terrific use of the Pause button to create asides for Cybil to communicate her intimate thoughts. The Humiliation Half Life situations were also excellently conveyed.

Crisp stage directions by Kristine McIntyre enhanced the story and made good use of the sparse props, including a bench that barely accommodated a seduction scene between Cybil and Tony. The video projections by Kathy Maxwell were outstanding, with some suggesting the chaotic inner world of the characters, some imitating the gaming experience, and others displaying views of the Bay Area. A tip of the hat to costume designer Madeleine Beer, because Cybil changed her top to a black turtleneck sweater a la Elisabeth Holmes (who had a copied that style from Steve Jobs).

Mirror Game is an admirable opera that deserves more than one hearing. It will be interesting to find out how Ojakangas and Punt’s creation plays on other stages, especially if it is done in the Bay Area.

No comments: