REVIEW: The Ring Cycle (The Building Stage)

‘The Ring Cycle’ Is a Family Affair

 WotanValkyries

The Building Stage presents:

The Ring Cycle

 

based on Richard Wagner “Der Ring des Nibelungen”
directed by Blake Montgomery and Joanie Schultz
adapted by
The Building Stage
through March 14th (more info)

Review by Paige Listerud

The Building Stage has obviously made no small plans. Since their own press admits an aversion to playing it safe, even in the midst of economic crisis, one might easily presume that they’d proceed with greater flare, more flash, or more complicated effects in the execution of their latest production, The Ring Cycle. Instead, Artistic Director Blake Montgomery and Associate Artistic Director Joanie Schultz have given us an adaptation of Richard Wagner’s classic Der Ring des Nibelungen that seems almost puritanical in its lean storytelling. If anything, this monumental production adheres to strict interpretation of Montgomery’s vision for a physical theater—relying full force on the use of mask, clown, movement and mime. Whatever effects exist, they are only the most elemental kind. It’s a theater that celebrates the actor and the actor’s body. In this case, that celebration pushes the endurance of The Ring Cycle’s cast and crew to their limits with a six-hour long marathon of a show.

Building Stage_The Ring Cycle Set designers Meghan Raham and Lee Keenan are almost unforgiving in the productions spare, industrial structure. Only a few gracefully draped aerial silks relieve its exacting right angles and hard surfaces of brick, aluminum, and steel. Spare, elegant lighting (Justin Wardell) and a good, old, effectively timed fog machine suggest otherworldliness. Truly, the world of The Ring Cycle is not a kind or gentle one: its characters prefer warrior strength to anything that smacks of softness. Much here reminds us why Wagner was a Nazi favorite. Against this backdrop, the unabashed femininity of the Rhinemaidens (Sarah Scanlon, Lindsey Dorcus, and Lucy Carapetyan) provides much needed respite.

For all the promotion of The Ring Cycle as “a play that rocks,” the band is surprisingly unobtrusive. Composer and Music Director Kevin O’Donnell only underscores the action on stage; he never overwhelms it. His arrangements, quoting many of Wagner’s leitmotifs, are respectful and modest. The band itself remains semi-hidden in its own pit toward the back of the stage’s first level, reinforcing the theatricality of the overall production and the subterranean presence of the music. It’s a discreet, vital pulse–for a rock band.

In fact, it’s this lack of rock opera flash and pretentiousness that most marks The Building Stage’s production. Scene after scene is simply good, solid storytelling—the kind that takes place around campfires. Even the mid-show dinner break, when cast and audience dine, picnic-style, onstage together, produces a kind of family feeling. Given its rudimentary storytelling and the clowning that exhibits vaudevillian showmanship, one could almost recommend this as entertainment for the whole family. Then again, those passionate, unapologetic incest scenes just might carry that family feeling a little too far. I’ve use the word “puritanical” – but fear not. That’s only in reference to style. All the rampant, Oedipal mania of Wagner’s original has been preserved.

Rhinegold

There are some critics who think of Wagner’s Ring Cycle as Alberich’s tragedy. If so, it’s a tragedy born of frustrated attempts at getting nookie. The Rhine maidens, costumed in coy, sexy homage to Esther Williams, take a moment away from guarding their magical gold to taunt the ugly, hapless dwarf. Forswearing love, but not pleasure, Alberich (William Bullion) steals their gold and fashions a ring of power with which he plans to enslave all–starting with his brother Mime (Bill O’Connor) and the rest of the Nibelung. Here, the set design is its most effective, evoking a nightmare vision of an oppressive industrial underworld. Alberich enslaves his workforce not only with the Ring, but also a magical helmet fashioned by Mime that allows him to take any form—even invisibility–by which he can surveil and terrorize his overworked slaves.

Montgomery and Schultz can thank whatever gods they worship for Bullion and O’Connor’s agile and superbly timed clowning. Whether playing dwarves or giants, not only do they provide much needed levity, they make the darker moments more monstrous. In these two talents, The Building Stage has truly struck gold.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing among the beautiful people. Once again, costuming (Meghan Raham and Marianna Csaszar) lodges tongue firmly in cheek by dressing the gods as 1970s jet setters. An excellent impulse—if only they had the budget to bring on the vintage Halston and Versace. In any case, Wotan (Chris Pomeroy) has enough on his hands just trying to pay–or not pay–the Giants who have built his legendary fortress. Using his wife Fricka’s (Mandy Walsh) sister, the goddess Freia (Daiva Bhandari), as barter is bound to win him an eternity in the doghouse—especially since Freia grows the golden apples that keep the gods forever young.

Loge, the demigod of fire (Darci Nalepa), arrives just in time to throw both Ring and Rhinegold into the mix. Wotan depends on Loge’s wit to get him out of this jam, but Nalepa slays most when Loge’s wit turns on the gods in sly, scathing commentary.

The Earth goddess, Erda (Scanlon, Dorcus, and Carapetyan), emerges from her chthonic lair long enough to warn about the Ring’s dreadful power—a striking bit of puppetry, but still not enough to make everyone heed her advice. As Wotan surrenders the Ring, magic helmet, and gold he has stolen from Alberich, the Giants turn against each other in deadly combat, fulfilling the Ring’s curse. Accompanied by the mournful song of the Rhinemaidens, made more eerie by their blue-lighted presence contained downstage, the gods’ crossing of the rainbow bridge to Valhalla seems more like a retreat from the devastation they’ve colluded in, rather than a triumphal procession.

erda

Valkyrie

Time has passed. Wotan has stuck his dick into just about everything—including Erda, by whom he’s sired the Valkyries, and a mortal woman by whom he’s fathered the twins Siegmund (Nick Vidal) and Sieglinde (Bhandari). The twins have been separated at birth only to unwittingly meet again, when Sieglinde is trapped in a loveless marriage and Siegmund is on the run from a tribal quarrel over–guess what?–a girl about to be trapped in a loveless marriage.

It must be said that, while the entire cast grounds the heightened language of the original libretto with flesh and blood vitality, Vidal’s execution of it is especially strong. Particularly since professing fiery love as Siegmund in the second act, and Siegfried in the third, can get a little, well, repetitive. But Vidal never allows a moment’s loss of interest. In fact, it’s a real sensual pleasure to hear spoken words of love take on operatic power, whether between Siegmund and Sieglinde or Siegfried and Brunhilde (Nalepa). As for “incest is best,” no artist defends that ardent, narcissistic bond like Wagner. It also helps to have a patriarchal asshole of a husband, like Hunding, for a foil–played with relish by Pat King.

Leave it to the nagging wife to spoil everyone’s fun. Playing Fricka, goddess of marriage, may be a thankless job, but at least Walsh’s cramped harridan throws the estrangement between her and Wotan into high relief, bringing greater psychological veracity to Wotan’s quiet moment of confidence in his Valkyrie daughter, Brunhilde. This is, in fact, Pomeroy’s finest moment. In earlier scenes, his aloof style can make his king of the gods come across like a glorified spear-carrier. But in the course of revealing his secret scheme to use Siegmund and Sieglinde to retrieve the Ring, Pomeroy effectively captures Wotan’s vulnerability and anxiety over losing those he longs to protect by fulfilling his role as upholder of the law.

Pomeroy and Nalepa so thoroughly cement the bond between father and daughter that Brunhilde’s choice to disobey Wotan’s orders manifests the very definition of tragedy. He tells her to let Hunding kill Siegmund, according to Fricka’s wishes, but she disobeys, knowing her father’s true feelings and witnessing the love Siegmund has for Sieglinde. Things get a little rough around the edges, though. The shattering of the sword Necessity in Siegmund’s hands remains one of the clumsier effects of the production. Brunhilde and Sieglinde’s pleas for protection from the Valkyries also get a bit shrill. But for all that, the act closes profoundly on Wotan’s farewell to Brunhilde, as he puts her to sleep with a kiss and rings her body with a wall of fire that only a hero can penetrate. Plus, the ensemble puppetry of the ride of the Valkyries is pretty cool, too.

 

Siegfried

Two main things brighten the stage during the third episode: O’Connor’s hilarious interpretation of the dwarf Mime and the goofy, delightful, spring-fresh presence of the Woodbirds (Scanlon, Dorcus, and Carapetyan).

AngelofDeath Mime is not a nice guy. He raises young Siegfried, surviving son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, only in order to have him defeat Fafner, the surviving Giant who, with Mime’s magic helmet, has turned himself into a dragon and now guards both Rhinegold and Ring in a cave nearby. Once Fafner is slain, Mime has only to murder Siegfried and the Ring will be his. Dastardly designs indeed! And O’Connor wrings every drop of joyous comic book evil out of the premise.

Of course, Siegfried (Vidal) is Mime’s perfect straight man. Even after he’s magically acquired the ability to read his thoughts and knows all of Mime’s evil plans, he still doesn’t fully get their implications. Similar humorous exchanges occur between Siegfried and the Woodbirds–only with all the charms that the flying girls can bring, which are considerable.

An early visit from Wotan, now in Wanderer mode, reveals that only one who has never known fear can reforge the sword Necessity and defeat Fafner. Siegfried has never known fear because of a) his sheltered upbringing by Mime and b) he’s not the brightest crayon in the box. Still, he’s our hero. He reforges the sword, kills the dragon, and gets the Ring, the magic helmet and, ultimately, the girl—Brunhilde.

Granddad, however, is not doing so well. A brief visit with Erda confirms to Wotan that the end of the gods is nigh. This time, that fabulously bizarre, triple-goddess puppetry that brilliantly informed the first episode falls flat. There simply isn’t a strong, clear-cut emotional exchange between Wotan and Erda during this crucial scene. And, for all the “eternal woman” build-up before Erda’s entrance, she really just looks like a giant Blair Witch with headlights. On top of that, the Oedipal showdown between Wotan and Siegfried, hurrying to Brunhilde, is far too telegraphed and choreographed to maintain interest. It’s a perfunctorily performed scene that only manages to fill dead space.

But, once lovers are united, Vidal and Nalepa make the language soar. Brunhilde may anticipate the loss of personal power in her relationship with Siegfried, but her acquiescence makes the scene a flaming incest fest.

 

Twilight of the Gods

I hardly know which I like more—Gunther (King) and Gutrune (Bhandari) as the feckless and amoral aristocratic brother/sister pair or the black velvet evil of Hagen (Bullion), Alberich’s half-human offspring. Bullion really knows how to let the darkness in, especially during a difficult scene in which Alberich communicates with Hagen during a dream state. That kind of thing would be a sloppy mess in lesser hands, but Bullion’s energy and precision pulls it off with all its uncanny psychological undertones.

rescue But then King and Bhandari toss off their lines and make their characters’ choices with all the careless ease of the over privileged. Too blithe to consider the ramifications of their actions and too spineless to devise or execute their own schemes, they facilely wreak enough damage being led around by the nose by Hagen. Again, this Wagnerian prelude to Nazi theories about class-consciousness and certain people with “bad blood” rises to the surface.

Siegfried, ever the guileless hero, wanders into this pit just after he has bestowed the Ring as a token of love on Brunhilde. One quick sip of a love potion makes him forget all about it. Plighting himself to Gutrune and swearing blood brotherhood to Gunther, he vows to win Brunhilde for Gunther’s wife. Using the magic helmet to disguise himself as Gunther, he penetrates the fiery barrier once again, steals back the Ring, and Gunther drags Brunhilde back with him to the castle.

All through three episodes, Nalepa has carefully plotted Brunhilde’s progress with visibly subtle and nuanced changes in consciousness. Going from immortal shield maiden to mortal woman, independent, inexperienced virgin to sensually dominated lover, Brunhilde now reaches the depths of barren patriarchal disempowerment that make her as embittered and vindictive as Fricka. Lo, how the mighty Valkyrie has fallen. It may be painful to watch but at least every piece is in place. She retaliates Siegfried’s mindless betrayal by revealing to Hagen and Gunther his Achilles’ heel—or, rather, back. It’s one step from there to Siegfried’s demise.

How nice that Siegfried gets one more chance with the eternal feminine through his encounter with the Rhinemaidens at the river. It’s the last big moment for Scanlon, Dorcus, and Carapetyan to shine, where the excellence of their dramatic and acrobatic unity reveals how essential they have been all along. Their deceptively light and playful warning to Siegfried plumbs all kinds of depths about chances not taken and fortune breezily passing one by. How nice it is that, after the death of the hero, the drowning of Hagen, the end of the gods and the retrieval of their Rhinegold, even without sword or shield, the girls finally get what they want.

Rating: ★★★

 

NOTE: Building Stage encourages the audience to bring a picnic or purchase a boxed dinner at least 24 hours in advance from our catering partner Bari Italian Deli. Bring your blanket and join in an onstage wintertime picnic. Snacks and beverages will also be available at the theater during the run of the show

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Review: The Hypocrites’ “Frankenstein”

Without firm skeleton, confusion and unfocused choices persist

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The Hypocrites present:

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley
Adapted and directed by Sean Graney
at the Museum of Contemporary Art Stage
through November 1st (program)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Frankenstein3 From the moment the audience enters the MCA stage for The Hypocrites’ rendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapter/director Sean Graney makes it clear that this production is enamored with the idea of Frankenstein. On one wall, the famous 1931 film version of the story is projected. The opposite wall is plastered with the pages torn from a couple copies of the novel. In adapting the book for the stage, Graney collides a handful of sources together, creating his own monster. Shelley’s novel provides the heart and mind, but other sections are lanced from Macbeth, Faust, and ideas from inventors like Oppenheimer and Edison. The finished creature, though, chooses riffing on themes over delving into character or plot. Without a firm skeleton, the production sinks into confusion and unfocused choices.

Graney’s adaptation plays heavily with Shelley’s original (which she wrote when she was 19). The sprawling novel is condensed into a four-character piece, focusing heavily on the monster’s (Matt Kahler) desire for a wife. Paralleling the creature’s search for companionship is the engagement of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) to his sister, Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz). Graney’s script could use more explication; although powerfully presented, the incestuous relationship is not deeply explored. This lack of detail flaws many aspects of the story—the characters seem more like symbols than believable people (or daemons). Because it is difficult to connect to the characters, the element of tragedy is excised. It also stifles the themes this production tries to shout out so loudly.

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It doesn’t help that Graney’s staging sometimes adds to the confusion inherent in the script. Like most Hypocrite shows, all aspects of Frankenstein are beautifully designed. Bloodied baby doll parts hang from the grid, and the space is filled with staticky old-school televisions. Some of these choices are pretty hard to decipher. I still can’t figure out how performing the play in front of the film version enlightens the text. It felt like the play wanted to be far more self-reverential than it was. Even though the audience is confronted by different versions of Frankenstein on all fronts, the actors only reference the film a handful of times. Viktor pulls out a hard copy of Shelley’s original, but this is utilized even less. The design celebrates the fact that in the 200 years since Frankenstein was first published there have been a myriad of takes on the story; the script and staging fail to be as self-aware. This disconnect between design and performance drags down the production.

Brynes’ representation of the famous doctor rightly portrays the passion of a man playing at God. However, he can’t figure out how to layer Viktor quite right, and the full impact of his gradual ruination is glossed over. As Dr. Frankenstein’s sister/bride-to-be, Stoltz is motherly and soft. It would be nice to see more of Elizabeth; although Stoltz is pretty clear, the tract is still hard to follow. Jessie Fisher is sweetly innocent as the Strange Girl, a character created by Graney. The richest performance in the bunch, though, comes from Kahler as the famous monster. His poetical musings on death, creation, and loneliness are incredibly poignant considering he looks like an abomination for most of the show. His moving philosophizing is contrasted sharply by his propensity for extreme violence, reminding us, after all, that this show was intended for the Halloween season. Probably the best scene in the show is when the Girl is mercilessly beaten by Frankenstein’s creation.

The promenade style that Graney has developed over the years falls short here. While in certain spaces the intermingling of actors and audience is enlightening (like last year’s Edward II at Chicago Shakes), here the stage is filled with too many people and key moments are lost in the crowd.

Graney’s adaptation definitely has potential. Workshopping the piece would do it a lot of good, strengthening the plot to match the powerful themes. In its current form, though, it is hard to sew all the pieces together into a cohesive beast.

Rating: ★★½

 

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Photos by Paul Metreyeon

Adaptor/Director: Sean Graney
Music: Kevin O’Donnell
Lyrics: Sean Graney
Cast: John Byrnes, Jessie Fisher, Matt Kahler, Stacy Stoltz
Lighting: Jared Moore
Sound: Mikhail Fiksel
Set: Tom Burch
Video Projections: Mike Tutaj
Costumes: Meghan Raham
Fight Choreography: Matt Hawkins