This ‘House’ feels unfinished

Anne Harley and Timur Bekbosunov with musicians in “A House in Bali.’’ Anne Harley and Timur Bekbosunov with musicians in “A House in Bali.’’ ()
By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / October 11, 2010

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You might describe “A House in Bali,’’ the hyperkinetic multimedia performance piece that swept into the Cutler Majestic Theatre on Friday like a late-season monsoon, as a fixer-upper. It took a lot of love, patience, and sweat equity to build. But not all the pieces fit together yet.

The master builder is composer and MIT professor Evan Ziporyn, who has combined traditional Balinese with Western musical, choreographic, and dramatic materials and performers to construct a vivid if loose narrative of culture clash and artistic exploration in 1930s Indonesia. Wearing a white tropical suit, Ziporyn conducted the busy proceedings standing at center stage, surrounded by a swarming host of gamelans, drums, dancers, singers, and the members of the hip musical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars.

A roving cameraman shot video of the actors as they prepared for and executed their roles. This footage was projected on a screen at the front of the stage, providing an unsettling double image. Another much larger screen at the back of stage was filled with filmed imagery of Bali: mountains, motor scooters, clouds. English-language subtitles were projected on another screen at the top of the stage, since some of the dialogue is in Indonesian. Thankfully, 3-D glasses were not required.

The result of this visual excess (directed by Jay Scheib) was to bury the slim story line involving three prominent Western visitors to Bali: Canadian composer Colin McPhee, German painter Walter Spies, and American anthropologist Margaret Mead. Paul Schick’s episodic, impressionistic libretto focuses on McPhee, whose memoir inspired Ziporyn. In Bali, McPhee found the artistic and personal liberation (rather like Julia Roberts more recently in the film “Eat Pray Love’’) he lacked at home, particularly in an ambiguous relationship with the 13-year old boy Sampih (danced provocatively here by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi).

As McPhee, tenor Peter Tantsits sang with authority and polish. He conveyed the appropriate spiritual confusion and voyeurism in a dramatically and musically underdeveloped role. Margaret Mead (soprano Anne Harley) is little more than a caricature with her sensible shoes, camera, and self-absorbed bookish chatter. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov sang the small role of Spies with a winning smile.

“A House in Bali’’ has many enthralling moments — the trio of the Western artists explaining their attraction to this magical island, the love dance of McPhee and Sampih. But disconnected moments they remain, field notes in search of a form.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at

A HOUSE IN BALI At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Friday