The Big Sleep

Spirits do Mr. Sandman's work at the Illusion Theater; the Minnesota Opera's Otello rages on

The schlemiel next to me is snoring (grumble, grumble, snort). The sound has been getting progressively louder throughout the first act, and now people are turning in their seats to flash the Napper indignant looks. I do not condone sleeping in the theater, but in this case I find it hard to condemn. Though there's nothing particularly soporific about Illusion Theater's I Believe I'll Run On...And See What the End's Gonna Be, this purportedly gritty urban drama is as predictable as an episode of Touched by an Angel. The schlemiel, one suspects, was only displaying a conditioned reflex, a behavior learned during hundreds of hours on the couch at home: Troubled youth plus heavenly visitation equals a few good winks.

Originally produced in 1994 as part of Illusion's "Fresh Ink" series, I Believe I'll Run On... addresses the plight of inner-city youth with laudable energy and fine intentions. Anyone familiar with It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, or any of their myriad imitators will immediately recognize the milieu of Kim Hines's play. In this case an angry wheelchair-outfitted teen named Donny (a credibly bitter Ronald Alois), who is obsessed with wreaking vengeance on the gang-banger responsible for his paralysis, is given a shot at redemption by two enigmatic angel types, Queen Esther (Marvette Knight) and Uncle Best (T. Mychael Rambo). Divine intervention always comes with an attached lesson in moral rectitude, however, and Donny must first learn to appreciate his life, respect his family, and break the cycle of gang violence that threatens to destroy him. He will, of course, and we will all feel much better about the plight of urban youth as a result.

Teen trouble: Donny (Ronald Alois, left) and his friend (Jason R. Lockhart) contemplate revenge in I Believe I'll Run On...
Teen trouble: Donny (Ronald Alois, left) and his friend (Jason R. Lockhart) contemplate revenge in I Believe I'll Run On...

I Believe I'll Run On... is set in South Minneapolis, but it could take place almost anywhere. Set designers Steven Reiser and Irena Pivka divide the stage with multicolored, multitextured walls that swing like the doors of a triptych to conceal or reveal the action. Outside the walls is an unspecified purgatory where Donny meets his angelic host and hostess. According to Uncle Best, they are waiting in this deserted wasteland for a bus, presumably to deliver them to an eternal reward after educating their youthful ward. When the walls swing open, Donny is back in Minneapolis in the home of his good-natured grandmother (Stephanie D. Lusco) and effervescent sister (Aimee K. Bryant). They're awfully nice--Donny's grandmother wants to take him to a clinic in California "where they're teaching people to walk in new ways"--but Donny is set on a course of revenge.

Midway through the second act, the sleeper beside me stirs. Donny has procured a gun from a friend (Jason R. Lockhart) and is planning a rendezvous with destiny. Despite the virtuous advocacy of his family ("We lost your father to drugs, your mother to battery. We don't want to lose you, too," and "How come you got to keep up this revenge shit? It's like eating you up or some shit"), Donny seems intent on becoming a statistic. Will the supernatural guidance counselors intercede and give Donny a second chance at life? Without giving away too much, the line in Vegas is 12 to 1 for spiritual redemption.

 

One would have to be a truly dedicated narcoleptic to snooze through the first act of Verdi's Otello, now playing at the Minnesota Opera. Beginning with an ominous bass rumble from the orchestra, the production skips over some of Shakespeare's more tedious expository scenes to the Moor's landing on Cyprus. In this staging (developed by the Austin Lyric Opera), the island colony is truly a military outpost, sporting monolithic white fragments of wall that look like flotsam from a Roman ruin. A storm is raging as Otello's ship arrives, and the war-torn Cypriot rabble sent out to greet the hero careen wildly from one side of the stage to the other, swelling to a chorus that sends shivers of ecstatic anticipation down the spine.

For good reason, Otello has long been considered the best of Verdi's Shakespearean adaptions. Along with the exotic locale, it has a relatively simple plot that arcs cleanly from triumph to tragedy. There's passion, murder, and suicide--the stuff for which opera was made. And, it's worth noting, Shakespeare's Othello is essentially void of the incestuous and patricidal subtexts that make some of the other tragedies so thorny. Verdi and librettist Arrigio Boito must have realized that they were dealing with prime material: Both the score and the libretto are models of dramatic unity, with few of the bombastic musical asides that generally plague Verdi's works.

The story, of course, is familiar (although a party of self-styled opera aficionados engaged in a lively debate during the first intermission over who was going to die. One astute young lady who had glanced at the synopsis in the program predicted, "that Desdemona chick better watch it"). Here, that chick is played by the comely soprano Nicolle Foland (Michaela Gurevich in alternating performances). The part of her husband Otello is filled by tenor Stephen O'Mara (George Gray alternates). After the traditional fashion, he appears in ashy blackface, looking for all the world like one of the Klingons from the old Star Trek television series. Otello's nemesis Iago is played by Robert Hayward (Gary Simpson alternates).

As in so many stagings of this story, the villain steals the show. Iago is a nihilistic chess master and thus inherently more interesting than the pawns he manipulates. In addition, Hayward's resonant baritone tends to dominate the duets between Otello and Iago, effectively smothering the Moor's nobler impulses. Hayward may be a bit seedy for the part--one usually pictures Iago as a weasely, clean-cut junior executive type--but his electric stage presence is perfect for the mercurial anti-hero for whom "death is nothingness and heaven a lie."

If Otello is one of Verdi's finest, it must also be one of his most exhausting. Along with the sustained feverish emotional pitch, both Otello and Iago are on stage for the lion's share of the second act and there is little respite for strained vocal cords beyond the occasional duet or chorus scene. By the time Otello enters Desdemona's bedroom to put out the lights once and for all, both the performers and the audience are ready for some well-earned rest.

 

I Believe I'll Run On...And See What the End's Gonna Be runs through March 6 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts; (612) 339-4944.Otello runs through February 6 at the Ordway Music Theatre; (651) 224-4222.

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