The Fox Theatre brings the twentieth anniversary tour of Rent to St. Louis in a production that is vocally near perfection, with themes that resonate to contemporary audiences. The show remains firmly in the 1990s, so the styles are a bit dated, but that doesn't lessen the impact of the story. Since the musical liberally references the operas La Boehme and Les Miserable, it's clear the issues of class, poverty, the struggle of artists, disease, and addiction persist in society.

In the 1990s version of the story, we are introduced to close friends Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, Roger, an aspiring songwriter and musician, and Tom Collins, a brilliant scholar and computer hacker who eschews the comforts of conventional academia. The three live in a run down building inhabited by other artists and addicts, in a section of New York City that was once friendly to the homeless and struggling but is undergoing gentrification. 

Mark pines over Maureen, a bisexual performance artist who loves nothing as much as the spotlight. Rogers longs to free himself from depression brought on by the loss of his former girlfriend, perhaps neighbor Mimi can help him find the will to live and love again. Tom Collins was recently rescued, physically and emotionally, by the transgender Angel. They are all angry with their friend Benjamin for marrying and callously promoting gentrification at the expense of his friends and the homeless. There's a class battle raging in this story and, as often the case in life, you're never really certain that anyone wins in the end.

Danny Harris Kornfeld is authentically nerdy and likable as filmmaker Mark Cohen. He's eager to be a part of the community, but hesitant to step from behind the camera and expose himself.  Kaleb Wells is moody and emotionally transparent as Roger Davis, we see the conflict of confusion, desire, and despair in every movement and expression. He and Skyler Volpe, as the equally desperate Mimi Marquez, have chemistry that jumps from the stage and they dance and tease and fall into confused love with each other in a way that's palpable and satisfying. Aaron Harrington, as Tom Collins, and David Merino, as Angel Schunard, have the same intense chemistry.

Angel is the spiritual center of the show, representing hope and persistence, two qualities often missing in contemporary society. Merino effortlessly inhabits the character, radiating positive energy that spills from the stage. Wells and Volpe remind us of the beauty and pain that accompanies love, and the strength it provides in the most dire and unpromising of situations. Kornfeld is earnest, his narration and description as perceptive as his camera, and his voice has a pleasant everyman quality that engenders sympathy and belief. The story feels real when voiced by these actors, and the songs easily provide the dialogue in a year of change. 

The supporting cast is strong as well, and features Christian Thompson as Benjamin Coffin III, Jasmine Easler as Joanne Jefferson, and Katie LaMark as Maureen Johnson, as well as Natalie Lipin, Bryson Bruce, Alia Hodge, Sammy Ferber, Jordan Long, Timothy McNeill, and Futaba Shioda. Thompson reminds me a bit of a young Drake and is irritatingly convincing as a man willing to step on others, albeit however lightly, to move up. His generosity and good-natured spirit help redeem him, and Thompson plays well against the others. Easler and LaMark were a bit problematic for me. I wanted to embrace their characters but each, at times, seemed to be in a different production. Easler came across as stridently dramatic while LaMark offered too much Broadway sunshine to really mesh with the rest of the cast. The choices suit the characters, but I wish director Evan Ensign had pushed the two a little further so their antagonistic moments weren't quite so transparent.

Rent is a fresh take on a centuries old story, as such, there's much familiar in the structure and plot. The updated setting and issues work well in the framework, the characters are genuinely compelling, and the songs are at times brilliantly simple, at times deliciously complex, and always sung to near perfection. The use of scaffolding, folding chairs, and industrial metal tables, works well to create a sense of industrial loft living on a lower economic scale. 

I have come to realize that sustained notes and extended runs are the aria of modern musical theater, and to appreciate layered melodies and intricate structural refrains that create the sense of dialogue. Rent makes spectacular use of these devices and the cast is superb in their execution, knowing the music well enough to stretch it here and there to suit the individual voices. Davis, Johnson, and Hodge make the most of this with growls, jumps, and intonation that adds a fresh twist to familiar songs.

What leaves me wanting is the sense of connection and real struggle the show intends to reflect. This Rent is almost too perfect, even while it is understood that theater is necessarily hyper-real in its artistic interpretation of time, place, and fashion. The characters look too comfortable, things come too easy -- I was hoping for more gratitude and relief at the sight of money and food. The show is beautiful and compelling, with characters that truly captivate my attention, but it all feels a little shallow, taking me out of the moment at times. 

Rent, running at the fabulous Fox Theatre through May 21, 2017, is a fitting update on classic themes and a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theater with a story that touches the heart and songs that will likely have you humming for several days to come. The characters feel real and it's easy to imagine the battles and choices they face, creating a show that naturally compels you to pay attention.

 

How good is Opera Theatre's new production of Puccini's 1904 "Japanese Tragedy" Madame Butterfly? It's so good that it allowed me to forget, for nearly all of its two-and-one-half hour length, why I dislike this opera in the first place. Artistically and technically, this is such a superb piece of work that even an old Butterfly curmudgeon like yours truly got swept up in the tragedy.

My issues with the opera itself are mostly about the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on a play by David Belasco. On the one hand, I have always regarded Pinkerton, the sailor who seduces and abandons the title character, as the prototypical Ugly American. Arrogant, self-centered, and chauvinistic, he's Donald Trump in dress whites. On the other hand, the Geisha Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly) displays, as written, a degree of naiveté which, despite her youth (she's supposed to be fifteen when she marries Pinkerton), borders on the delusional. As a result, this tragedy about two people who, as OTSL General Director Timothy O'Leary notes in a video blog, "are deeply in love but deeply misunderstand each other" has always struck me as a bit forced.

Still, even I get a bit choked up in the opera's final pages, especially when the production is this good. From the scene in which the abandoned Butterfly prepares to take her own life after a tearful farewell to the son she has conceived by Pinkerton (and which poverty now obliges her to give up to Pinkerton and his American wife) to the final moment when Pinkerton, unable to deny what he has done, collapses in a heap of grief and guilt over Cio-Cio-San's body, it's pathos all the way, folks. This is Puccini, after all. And for me, at least, the emotional pull of his music is what raises Butterfly above the level of sordid melodrama. 

And, of course, the moral issues it raises about power and principle are as valid now as they were over a century ago, both on the personal and national levels. It also helps that the English translation by long-time OTSL stalwarts Margaret Stearns and Colin Graham seems to give Pinkerton a bit more depth than others I have seen.

 

OTSL has assembled a fantastic cast. Soprano Rena Harms, who recently played Cio-Cio-San with the English National Opera, turns in a stunner of a performance here, forcefully sung throughout her range and acted with real conviction. She makes the character's tricky mix of vulnerability and backbone completely credible and fully commands the stage at all times.

 

Tenor Michael Brandenburg is an equally impressive Pinkerton, all smug bravado in the first act, crushing remorse at the end of the second. Like Ms. Harms, he has a truly spectacular voice, especially when combined with hers. Their long love duet at the conclusion of the first act was pure musical ecstasy. Even I was enthralled.

 

Baritone Christopher Magiera, who has done such fine work with OTSL in the past, once again delivers the goods as the American consul Sharpless, who tries, without success, to get Pinkerton to see the tragedy he will set in motion and to befriend the poverty-stricken Cio-Cio-San. It's a sympathetic portrayal, sung with genuine warmth and power. Ditto mezzo Renée Rapier in the small but important role of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's wise and long-suffering maid.

Even the small roles get big, polished performances. That includes tenor John McVeigh in the mostly comic part of Goro, the marriage broker; baritone Benjamin Taylor as Prince Yamadori, who tries to woo the abandoned Cio-Cio-San; bass-baritone Matthew Stump as The Bonze, who excoriates Cio-Cio-San for converting to Christianity; and soprano Anush Avetisyan as Pinkerton's American wife Kate.

Both Ms. Avetisyan and Mr. Taylor are members of the company's Gerdine Young Artists program, by the way. The quality of their work here speaks very well for that undertaking.

In a long and very insightful program note, director Robin Guarino goes into considerable depth discussing the issues presented by Madame Butterfly for contemporary audiences. "The obstacle of stereotype is certainly ever-present," she notes, and goes on to discuss the work's "long history of controversy--from issues of sexism, racism, and imperialism in the story to the issue of casting in theater and opera, which both have historically employed problematic practices like yellowface minstrelsy and the playing of Asian characters by white performers in makeup and prosthetics." Her solution, which strikes me as very smart, is to largely ignore ethnicity altogether and concentrate instead on the long-standing OTSL practice of "casting artists based solely on musical, dramatic, and artistic expertise, rather than appearance." That could have been a trap of a different kind, but the high quality of the results speaks for itself. 

Ms. Guarino and her designers have also shown wisdom in not trying to impose some artificial or post-modernist visualization on the opera. Laura Jellinek's sets, which seem to have been created from origami paper, are wonderfully evocative of the kind of artificially Westernized vision of Japan that was no doubt in the minds of Puccini and his librettists, who were unhindered by any knowledge of the real thing. They contrast nicely with Candice Donnelly's scrupulously accurate costumes, which were based on historical research. "Many of the kimonos in our production were ordered directly from Kyoto," notes Ms. Guardino. They look lovely.

Under Cary John Franklin's direction, the OTSL chorus sounded as powerful and precise as always. And conductor Michael Christie led the St. Louis Symphony musicians in a flawlessly played account of Puccini's ravishing score.

What all this means is that if you, like the vast majority of opera lovers, are a fan of Madame Butterfly, you really owe it to yourself to see the Opera Theatre production. It's certainly the best one I have ever seen and a great way to start the new season. It runs through June 24 in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton center in Webster Groves.

 

 

 

 

South Africa's dismantling of the system of apartheid included the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a judiciary system established to bring restorative justice to the country. Many of the militants who fought to keep the country segregated came before the TRC to give testimony in return for amnesty consideration in civil and criminal prosecutions. In public opinion, Eugene de Kock, known as "Prime Evil," was among the most notorious of the criminals who chose to testify.

In a surprising turn of events, de Kock requested an audience with the widows of two black police officers who were killed by C10, the secretive police unit he commanded. Surprised by de Kock's frank testimony and request, TRC member Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed the commander about his experiences. A research professor specializing in trauma, memory, and forgiveness, she was interested in probing both de Kock's memory and his feelings towards apartheid, the trials, and his incarceration. Their conversations, recorded over a five-year period, formed the basis for her book A Human Being Died that Night, which Nicholas Wright adapted to create the play.

Jacqueline Thompson transforms herself into the captivating and persistent Gobodo-Madikizela. With a spot on accent and reactions that reflect her character's changing perspective, she remains curious and nonjudgmental -- a surprise to both de Kock and the audience. She wants to know what happened under de Kock's leadership, how it made him feel, and, as importantly, why de Kock asked to speak with his victims' widows. There's an effortless empathy to Thompson's performance, ensuring we see the process and emotions Gobodo-Madikizela experienced. When she twitches with remembered pain, you wonder why she doesn't strike out. When she pointedly bites her tongue, you wonder where she finds the courage to continue. Thompson imbues every line with a sense of urgency and personal power, resisting the natural desire for retaliation with grace and refusing to be intimidated by de Kock. 

Christopher Harris is equally strong and filled with ambiguity as Eugene de Kock, easily moving from disturbing description to reflective thought. Though he is chained to his chair as well as locked behind bars, his mind is unencumbered. He casually describes his former reality in ways that seem at once callous and deeply convicted. Harris doesn't shy away from de Kock's ambiguities, making it clear that, despite his many crimes, he relied on an internal moral compass of sorts. This persistent, if flawed, morality leads de Kock to turn on his commanders and the resulting conversations are all the more fascinating for the apparent dichotomy, which Harris deftly conveys.

De Kock is inherently unsympathetic, but his intelligence and acknowledgement of his crimes is compelling, willing the audience to listen and asking us to suspend judgment without facts. In contrast, we expect Gobodo-Madikizela to be angry and accusatory, even vengeful, towards de Kock. Instead, Thompson fills her portrayal with genuine interest and a deep need for understanding over retribution. She truly seems to operate without a personal or political agenda.

Gobodo-Madikizela's story is presented in the form of a lecture with flashbacks that dramatize the conversations between her and the imprisoned de Kock.  Her lecture is enhanced with video projections, designed by Michael Dorsey, of scenes from South Africa. Some show the natural beauty of the country and its people, others remind us of the very real destruction and horror of apartheid. The video screen is actually a sliding wall, a part of Patrick Huber's effective set design that opens to reveal the visitors' room at the grey, colorless prison where de Kock is incarcerated.

Director Patrick Siler brings clear vision and a sense of purpose to the story, ensuring that each perspective is delivered with a smart, nonjudgmental touch. In light of recent history in a region that not so long ago felt the sting of racial disparity in very real and violent terms, it can be hard to be open to this story. Wright's script conveys historic and personal significance that reverberates without feeling preachy and Siler and the actors respond to spectacular effect. 

Unless we approach the lessons of history with a sense of shared humanity, we are doomed to repeat them. And perhaps the most important lesson we need to learn is that each of us, no matter our actions or motivations, are human beings first and foremost. Gobodo-Madikizela communicates this point in her poignant and moving book and Upstream Theater brings that story to life in fully connected performances that resonate with truth. Unsettling as it may be, A Human Being Died that Night, running through May 28, 2017, offers important insight into a tragic history in a fascinating, thought provoking show. 

 

 

The wonderful Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened its forty-second season with a deeply satisfying production of Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Opera Theatre has grown to be among the world's first rank of opera producers. Audiences and reviewers come from all across America and from five continents around the globe. This production of Butterfly is right up there with their best.

As every eighth-grader knows (or should know) Commodore Perry (attended by several gunboats) opened Japan to European trade in 1854. In the decades following, European arts became virtually drunk with the craze of "Japonisme." Japanese prints, woodblocks, watercolors, kimonos, fans, screens, etc. were wildly popular, and the great artists of Impressionism were, almost to a man, deeply influenced by Japanese art -- Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and especially van Gogh. 

Literature and drama were likewise affected: Madame Butterfly appeared in 1898 as a short story by John Luther Long; in 1900 the great American impresario David Belasco adapted it as a one-act play; and it became Puccini's opera in 1904. 

John Luther Long said of himself that he was "a sentimentalist and a feminist and proud of it." Of course the story would appeal to Puccini, the most sentimental of all composers of opera. Audiences are sentimental too, it seems, because Butterfly is the sixth most frequently produced opera in the world.

You know the story. Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, of the USS Abraham Lincoln, is stationed in Nagasaki. Besmitten with a young geisha, he enters into a Japanese "temporary marriage" with her, never thinking of it as anything but a convenience. But the girl, Cio-cio-san (called "Butterfly"), is innocent and truly in love with Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously indeed--she even becomes a Christian. When Pinkerton's tour of duty ends and he returns to America, Butterfly -- impoverished and rejected by her family -- spends her days dreaming of his return. She also gives birth to his son--the image of his father. In earlier translations the boy is named "Trouble," but more recently he is called "Sorrow" (a wise choice given the wry double entendre of "Trouble"). Butterfly says that when Pinkerton returns the child's name will change to "Joy." 

Set designer Laura Jellinek and costumer Candace Donnelly give us quite the perfect visual world for Madame Butterfly. A small iconically Japanese house -- with sliding panels of paper and bamboo -- sits on a rocky hillside overlooking the sea. In a stroke of genius Ms. Jellinek constructs her hillside out of what seems to be miles of Japanese printed fabric -- or perhaps crumpled Origami paper -- dark gray with a small white pattern a million times repeated. The folds tumble down most beautifully. We breathe in this world and we are filled with that distinctively spare Japanese beauty.

Ms. Donnelly's costumes are beautiful and authentic. (The kimonos are indeed from Japan.) This authenticity drives deep: there are, surprisingly but appropriately, several layers of gown beneath the lovely kimono. And everything is true to period: the Japanese men wear Oriental gowns, but sometimes Western hats--a derby, a topper, a straw boater. Pinkerton's uniforms are precisely correct for the turn-of-the-century American navy officer--unfamiliarly unadorned, nary an epaulette. And Pinkerton's wife, Kate, is a simply striking image in a pristine white traveling suit. Quite wonderful.

What a glorious collection of voices! Soprano Rena Harms, as Butterfly, and tenor Michael Brandenburg, as Pinkerton, are a fine match, and they do glorious service to Puccini's gorgeous melodies. Their love duet, which closes Act One, is weepingly beautiful. Puccini makes it climb and climb -- rather like Wagner's "Liebestod" -- and these two twining voices sing it splendidly. 

At the opening of Act Two Butterfly sings to her servant, Suzuki, of her irrepressible faith in Pinkerton's return. "One fine day" (Un bel di) is the most famous aria in this opera--and perhaps in all of Puccini. It is certainly the one opera melody that I always find myself whistling. Miss Harms triumphs in it. It's a glory.

I do believe, though, that this Butterfly lacks just a pinch of the needed innocence. The girl is fifteen. Yes, she's been a geisha, but that merely means she sings and dances to please men; she is not a prostitute. She is called "dear little baby wife of mine, dear little orange blossom", "poor little creature," "that child, that pretty flower." Yet Miss Harms' eyes are sometimes knowing and flirtatious. But this is a tiny quibble. Her performance is superb.

Now Pinkerton is quite a cad. From the very beginning he views himself as the triumphant "collector"; like all good American sailors he must "capture the flower of every shore." He must possess this butterfly "even if her wings are broken." So it's hard to yield him any sympathy when, after three years, he comes with his new American wife to take Butterfly's child from her. But Pinkerton realizes the suffering he has so carelessly caused and Brandenburg so powerfully and dramatically pours out the sheer agony of his remorse that he quite wrenches sympathy from our hearts.

Others in the cast do exemplary work. Tenor John McVeigh sings Goro, the crafty marriage broker. He has the gift of crystal diction. He, alone in the cast, let me understand every word without once referring to the supertitles. 

Christopher Magiera is very strong as Sharpless, the American Consul. Sharpless is Pinkerton's Jimminy Cricket, warning him not to do wrong. At the end he hasn't the courage to give Butterfly the full bad news, and with Pinkerton he indulges in a little "I-told-you-so! I-told-you-so!" But Magiera fills the role with dignity and heart.

Renée Rapier brings a lovely rich mezzo to the role of Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful servant. She makes Suzuki strong and loving, and her suffering as she helplessly observes the unfolding tragedy is heartbreaking.

The Bonze! What an entrance! At Butterfly's wedding her uncle, the Bonze, a priest, bursts in in a fury to curse his niece for having abandoned her religion. Bass-baritone Matthew Stump overwhelms the scene with power. A wonderful job.

Kate, Pinkerton's new wife, sings only eight or nine brief lines, but she is nevertheless an important figure in the drama. Anush Avetisyan is perfectly cast in this role. This Kate embodies the confident New American Woman. (By this time suffrage had been granted to women in four states.) Miss Avetisyan combines this confidence with kindness. Her voice is lovely, but I think that what makes hers a perfect performance is her mastery of that sadly lost art, the art of "carriage." She really knows how to wear that stunning white suit.

You'll want to steal young Master Sam Holder, who plays Sorrow. He's a beautiful treasure.

Stage director Robin Guarino manages her cast beautifully. There's careful, deft attention everywhere. There's only one scene where I felt a lack, but it is an important one. When Pinkerton's ship is sighted Butterfly calls for flowers. The libretto has her tell Suzuki to go to strip blossoms from the garden:

"Ev'ry flow'r, spare not any. Peaches, violets, jessamine. Ev'ry spray you find of gorse or grass or flow'ring tree."

Suzuki returns, embracing a bounty of flowers. Puccini gives the two ladies extended sublime flower music. They should slowly, gracefully, dreamily strew the blossoms about the stage. But in this production the director has Sorrow, the little boy, go to get the flowers. He fetches in a couple bags of flowers which are dumped unceremoniously--like yard trimmings--onto the floor. It's a decision that's hard to understand.

Chorus master Cary John Franklin and his singers merit much praise. The occasional off-stage chorus passages drift in softly, beautifully.

Conductor Michael Christie draws fine work from his orchestra, always supporting, never dominating the voices.

This is the first time I had seen Butterfly in English, and I learned a few things:

  • Pinkerton is really a cad. He boasts arrogantly and callously dismisses any concern for Butterfly. That's always been there, but somehow it's clearer in English.
  • The piece is strongly anti-imperialist. Indeed the blatant American references (Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, and the use of phrases from "The Star Spangled Banner" as a leitmotif for Pinkerton) make it almost anti-American.

But in English or Italian or Swedish or Swahili Madame Butterfly is filled with the most wonderfully lyrical music in all of opera. I would go to it if it were sung in Klingon! And the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production is simply superb. You'll love it! Madame Butterfly plays through June 24. 

 

 

 

 

 

Most fans of esteemed American playwright Tennessee Williams will quickly agree that his characters are among the most interesting aspects of his work. Unmistakably complex and often existing on the fringes of "acceptable society," they frequently feel more profoundly and see and understand much that is unseen by others. Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? pushes this idea with an interconnected narrative that blends the real and imagined in convincing fashion.

The primary story presents the three stages of woman: burgeoning sexuality; marriage and motherhood; and aging widow. There's a twist in the plot however, as Louise, the mother, is also a young widow. Louise is doing her best to maintain a proper household for herself and teen daughter Gloria, but it isn't always easy. Nora, their neighbor and a widow herself, tries to help the two as best she can, sharing food, gossip, and an interest in the spirit world with Louise. Still beautiful and in her prime, Louise nonetheless seems lost within herself and fundamentally stuck in meaningful repetition.

Both women long for the comfort of companionship that neither can provide for the other, and while Nora seems resigned to the idea that opportunity has passed her by, Louise clings to hope. The widows spend their evenings conjuring ghosts as Louise awaits the return of Mr. Merriwether, a handsome boarder that has captured her heart in desperate fashion. The two often compare notes regarding their spiritual visitors, apparitions that impart wisdom, poetry, and aesthetics with an air of authority even as they amiably question why they've been called forth. 

Louise does her best to control her daughter's need for attention, particularly from young men, but a part of her aches for that same touch. Her nerves seem frayed, but she carefully keeps up appearances as she waits for the return of her suitor. Her daughter, filled with hormones and a thirst for something more, spends her free time at the library writing essays for class and flirting. While her mother pines for a love far away, Gloria is motivated by an infatuation with a particularly handsome, but shy, young man. Their enthusiasm cannot be contained as they fumble and explore their bodies in a sensual pas de deux. 

Julie Layton is emotionally compelling as Louise, almost feverish in the belief her love will soon return, but she moves with purpose and dogged certainty. Kelly Weber's Nora is a doting mother hen with a comically long list of spiritual visitors and Molly McCaskill is filled with blossoming sexuality and a hint of rebellion as daughter Gloria. The three are also the only characters in the play that we're certain are real. Jacob Flekier, as the handsome young man, speaks with a stutter but finds confidence in Gloria's attention. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey are delightfully varied as multiple visitors from the spirit world; and their appearance as the three crones is earthy, comic, and telling. The apparitions, delightful characters from history and mythology, add texture and interest to the play, though their purpose remains vague. The performance is punctuated by Jack Wild's banjo, an instrument that adds voice and emotional texture to the complex story.

The story winds its way through the rooms of the Stockton House, the setting for the play, and the spirit visits interweave with Gloria and the young man's sexual exploration in a way that feels like an artfully choreographed dance. Director Jef Awada creates an atmosphere where the real and conjured characters insect without distraction, giving the entire production an ethereal dreaminess. The approach underscores the layers of emotion and need inherent in the script, creating a satisfying visual and sensory tapestry without sacrificing the plot.

A sense of ambiguity and spiritual curiosity is ever-present in the entertaining Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?, as is the sensuality of young love. The story moves effortlessly through a world that is not fully corporeal, yet remains authentic as it examines the emotional impact of loss and longing. The play, running through May 21, 2017 as part of the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, presents characters that society would often prefer to ignore and imbues them with a fragile grace that begs our attention. Without judgment or criticism, Williams questions prevalent morality and asserts the very human and fundamental need for the love of a companion.

 

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