You Naughty, Naughty Gods

Orpheus descends to the realm of the silly; The Chosen depicts the contemplative life

The gods dress like surly scofflaws from the 19th-century Parisian demiworld. They litter the floor of a penthouse suite in a stately hotel, complaining of immortal hangovers and moaning that eternity is a bore. A single, misplaced picnic basket of kidney pie is enough to incite a jealous riot (the gods' bland diet consists of nothing but ambrosia), with the likes of Mars and Cupid seizing pitchforks and French revolutionary flags to brandish menacingly. A trip down the elevator shaft to the netherworld inspires a near orgy, with the gods dressed in masks and capes like extras from Eyes Wide Shut, wildly dancing minuets and proclaiming that it is Bacchus, the god of wine (and, appropriately, theater), who reigns.

With their production of Orpheus in the Underworld, the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company should amend their name to include the word naughty. (The Very Naughty Opera Company? The Light and Naughty Opera Company? I shall let them decide.) Never mind Mike Leigh's latest film; it was Jacques Offenbach who was the king of Topsyturvydom, and the international success of this 1858 French operetta virtually created the British market for such entertainment. In Orpheus, Offenbach revisited the hoary Greek myth of the reclamation of Eurydice with a passion for misbehavior. It is classical studies by way of the Randy Vicar, with the gods seducing mortals by handing them copies of the Kamasutra and commenting on their powerful thighs.

The resulting stage production consists of waggling eyebrows and salacious grins, particularly from James Hamilton, who plays the underworld god Pluto with more mischievous facial expressions than would seem humanly possible. His gleeful amorality must have infected the rest of the cast, except for the play's antagonist, Public Opinion (a lone, irritating voice crying out for common decency), played by Lynne Hicks. "Nothing is sacred," she complains, "nothing is pure!" When she confronts the remainder of the cast with her blustery morality, however, they respond like frightened lambs. The moment she is gone, the cast returns to mugging furiously--an ill-timed shift in the wind would leave the entire cast of this production with permanently frozen leers on their faces.

Let us take Orpheus, for example (played by G&SVLOC regular Mikal J. Kraklio). In the original legend, Orpheus was an itinerant musician who stormed into the underworld to claim his snake-bitten wife, Eurydice. In this instance, Orpheus is a preening popinjay of a music instructor, surrounded by adoring students, whom he "likes to discipline on the rear." He is only too happy to be rid of his wife (played by Jen Christianson), and when Public Opinion insists that he rescue her from Pluto's clutches he responds with bewilderment.

Offenbach yearned to write serious opera (he would eventually pen the classic The Tales of Hoffman), but you would never know it from Orpheus. The composer's writing never passes up an opportunity for waggery. Near the play's climax, a long seduction takes place between Eurydice and a fly. "Buzz buzz buzz," the fly sings. "Buzz buzz buzz," comes the adoring reply. The love that dares not speak its name, indeed.

Eventually gods and mortals alike spontaneously burst into Offenbach's famous cancan, kicking their legs into the air and saluting the audience with their eyebrows. The stage thunders beneath their feet, briefly threatening to collapse and drag cast and audience into the basement of the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, where presumably we would all share in a meal of blood pudding, drink champagne, and dance until dawn.

 

Speaking of dancing, this past Saturday at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's production of The Chosen, all the fancy footwork belonged to the audience. Uptempo klezmer music played at every break in the play, inspiring a few comical audience members to leap to their feet and dance improvised horas as their friends clapped in time to the music.

This was not the best environment for serious drama, and fortunately author Chaim Potok and playwright Aaron Posner have kept their adaptation of Potok's popular novel light. The story remains the same (essentially depressing) telling of a friendship between an Orthodox and a Hasidic Jewish boy in the 1940s. The Hasid has been raised in silence by his father as some obscure lesson in compassion, and the story takes place in the shadow of the Holocaust. "The world is Amalek, the world is Cossacks, the world is Hitler," one character declares, while another staggers offstage to have a heart attack every time something unhappy happens.

Despite this, the script and this production of it are often glib, tossing out comic moments and punch lines with abandon, particularly when the play focuses on one of the boys, Reuven Malter. Played by Daniel Kronzer, Malter responds to life's trials with exquisite discomfort and then brief, comical explosions of frustration. Even in the Forties, Potok's main characters would have been oddballs; they spend their free afternoons at the public library obsessively reading books on Freud and symbolic logic. Potok's affection for his characters is such that they come off as bright, winning young men, rather than colossal nerds. Aaron J. Oster, playing the Hasidic boy, flashes a disarming smile even in the most serious scenes: When he boasts that he can quote the entirety of Ivanhoe, he's charming rather than obnoxious. And when he explains that he has begun to study German so that he can read Freud in the author's original language, there is a logic to his pronouncement.

Potok's novel dealt with language and its absence, and this works well on the stage. Conflicts in the story arise through differing opinions, as expressed through words, and most of the physical action of the novel consists of children turning the pages of books and arguing about meaning. The play mounts these strange action scenes like the skirmishes they are, and in doing so re-creates a prototypically Jewish moment from the past two thousand years: young Talmudists, engaged in argument, punctuating their small intellectual victories by pressing their thumbs into the air triumphantly. "You must learn to listen to the words behind the words," Malter's father (David Coral) advises his son, and on the stage--where language is as important as action--these conflicts of language develop extraordinary complexity. Consistent with the tradition of Judaism, there is no resolution here--just further argument and further interpretation.

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