Just Don't Call Him a Soul Man

Jeune Lune loses the devil in the details

While it's true that the devil always gets the best lines, perhaps it's compensation for generally coming out on the losing end. In Arrigo Boito's 1868 opera Mefistofele, the Great Tempter rolls sevens until his inevitable last-moment defeat. But along the road, he generally has his way with the overmatched Faust.

In the opening scene Mefistofele (Bradley Greenwald) lays out his general contempt for humankind, and soon enough comes across Faust, a seeker of truth in a business suit whose inquiries have already led him to insert his head into the noose. Their famous bargain is struck, and Faust struts off in search of a moment that might transcend all the dead ends of his intellectualism. The script suggests that this will be a moment of beauty, but then we also learn that it will make Faust wish he "was never born." It's a distinction that underscores the nihilism director Dominique Serrand inserts into the proceedings by casting Faust as suicidal even before his temptation.

Jeune Lune strips the opera down to a three-person orchestra on keyboards, and once the ear gets used to the arrangement, the dynamics of the score (with additional music by composers including Berlioz, Liszt, and Mahler) begin to emerge. It helps that fine voices are at work. Greenwald is demonically commanding, and with the emergence of Adam's ex-wife Lilith (Christina Baldwin, looking a bit like Bette Davis enduring gale-force winds) he finds an excellent foil.

'Mefistofele': Who wouldn't trade his soul for a 36-inch flat-panel TV?
Michal Daniel
'Mefistofele': Who wouldn't trade his soul for a 36-inch flat-panel TV?

Yet there is little onstage of emotional weight until the appearance of Faust's lover Margherita (Jennifer Baldwin Peden). In a contemporary turn, she's a Lebanese immigrant in Germany, who is subsequently sent home and imprisoned under odd circumstances. It is finally against a stylized backdrop of flaming oil wells that Peden delivers Margherita's breakdown with chilling effectiveness.

Odd, pleasing touches abound. Baldwin spends much of the night with an exaggeratedly long cigarette hanging from her mouth. And Greenwald proves that not only can one sing opera while devouring a sandwich, one can do it with nonchalance. But the Faust character (Emmanuel Cadet and Doug Scholz-Carlson split the role) feels soulless even when he has one. And the heady notion of the limits of both thought and intuition--here wed to a suggestion that America may have reached such a precipice--feels like it has been grafted to the body of the work in an unsuccessful surgical procedure.

By the end, Faust's salvation slides past with almost no impact at all. It's a bit like going on a date with a beautiful person who has an impeccable wardrobe and a sparkling vocabulary, but who, in the end, doesn't have as much to say as one had hoped.

 

For two years now I have resisted comparing a work of theater to a confection, a pastry, or another piece of sweetness from the kitchen. My streak is over. Ten Thousand Things's In a Garden is a slice of spicy rhubarb pie with Cool Whip topping. It's an éclair dashed with cinnamon. It's...well, you get the idea.

Director Michelle Hensley unleashes Tracey Maloney, Jim Lichtscheidl, and Luverne Seifert on two absurd operettas by Gertrude Stein and a third by Kevin Kling. (Peter Vitale and Meyer Kupferman have composed the accompanying music.) The first Stein piece finds Maloney declaring herself queen while two knuckleheads vie for her favor. The second makes light poetry out of the concept of serial murder. Kling's piece has Maloney as a mermaid trying to seduce a sea captain, before settling for the affections of a gnarly pirate.

All three shows float on the cast's goofy charm, uninhibited physicality, and contagious sense of fun. The idea is thin and would have fallen disastrously flat if not done so well. As it is, the three actors do it for an hour, then quit while they're ahead. Sweet tooth satisfied.

 
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