Two actors and lost loves find their way back to each other following a memory-erasing pandemic with what they know best: William Shakespeare.
The Charleston Opera Theater’s production of “UnShakeable,” as part of this year’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival, explores the themes of fear, loneliness and isolation that may come with experiencing a neurological illness.
The 40-minute opera stars emerging vocalists Grace Kahl as Meridian and Jonathan Bryan as Wyatt. They are under the direction of Harold Meers, executive director of Charleston Opera Theater, and music director Wojciech Milewski, who assumed the same role during its world premiere with the Santa Fe Opera.
That premiere was back in 2016, and while the show focuses on Meridian and Wyatt trying to navigate a pandemic, Meers said it is not about COVID-19 per se. Instead of focusing on the pandemic, he wanted to highlight the idea of memory loss and the isolation and fear that may come with it.
“Coming off the whole COVID-19 pandemic, we can all relate a little bit to what that isolation feels like,” Meers said. “Then you couple that with not only are you isolated, but you don’t remember anybody. Imagine how lonely and scary that would be.”
Wyatt, whose memory has come back, is trying to find Meridian in “UnShakeable.” When he does, she has no clue who he is or what his role is in her life. By reciting Shakespeare, Wyatt tries to help her regain her memory.
At the opera’s core is the love story between Meridian and Wyatt. It feels a little like “Romeo and Juliet,” if they had lost their memories, said Milewski.
Wyatt’s Shakespeare references are embedded throughout the dialogue, said Meers. Most references are from notable works like “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“If you don’t know anything about Shakespeare, you’ll still be able to follow along,” said Meers. “It’s not a prerequisite to know anything about Shakespeare.”
Meridian and Wyatt are the only two characters on stage in “UnShakeable,” but there’s a special third character: the audience.
Before each performance, Milewski teaches the audience an easy melody for an interactive moment. “There’s a really specific moment at the end of the opera,” Milewski said, “where Wyatt calls for help from the ‘wishing stars,’ which is the audience, quite literally breaking the fourth wall.”
The audience thereby helps Meridian gain her memory back, said Milewski. When the interactive moment happens, the audience should expect a cue from him from the piano.
Engaging the audience and including them in the performance is far from typical in opera, but Milewski and Meers believe it makes “UnShakeable” more immersive.
“If you’ve never been to an opera, seriously, it’s the perfect first opera,” said Milewski. “You will find yourself attached to the story, the characters and the music.”
IF YOU PLAN TO GO: Shows are June 8 at 7 p.m., June 9 at 7 p.m., June 10 at 2 p.m. and June 10 at 7 p.m. Threshold Repertory Theatre, 84 1/2 Society St. Tickets are $20 to $30.
Tania Ortiz is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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