Picnic Operetta brings theater into the garden

Love among the rutabagas: Lauren Drasler as Ilia
Ty Sassaman

Over the past four years, Mixed Precipitation has merged opera, theater, and food in its annual harvest-season Picnic Operettas. The pieces have always been a delight, and the 2012 edition is no different, even as it takes on a heavy opera from the early days of Mozart's genius.

For the Picnic Operettas, the company, led by director Scotty Reynolds and chef Nick Schneider, travels to community gardens across the Twin Cities in August and September. At each location, they bring their simple but effective staging and food sampling courses that reflect the action on the stage.

This year the theme is all Greek all the time. In The Return of King Idomeneo, the king of the title is returning home to Crete after the long years of the Trojan War. Near his home shores, a terrible storm blows in. To appease Neptune and save his crew, Idomeneo promises to sacrifice the first person he sees when he gets to shore.

As it happens, that person is Idamante, his son, who is sulking by the shoreline because the love of his life, Ilia, is a Trojan refugee and seemingly unattainable. The king faces the dilemma the way most of us would: by dragging his heels as much as possible. Neptune is not pleased, and sends a seaweed-infused plague upon the city until he is appeased.

Did I mention the whole show has a 1950s B-movie vibe, with '50s pop, rock, and doo-wop to go with the Mozart?

Beyond that is the food. Chef Schneider and a team of volunteers craft five courses for each performance, starting with a tomato shooter and running through several garden-based delights, such as a stuffed cucumber slice and salted and sautéed kale, meant to represent the seaweed ravaging the community.

The mixture of light and dark can be troublesome in a show if the right balance is not struck. Reynolds and the company of talented performers bring it off. It helps that ancient Greek characters wear their emotions close to the surface, whether they are lovesick, joyful, or heartbroken. That makes the story good fodder for opera, where emotions are often outsized, and ripe for a bit of parody.

The key is that the parody is never about the real emotions the characters are feeling inside. Sure, humor is built into the setting, the costumes, and the low-rent seaweed monster, but you can sense the anguish that Idomeneo and Idamante feel about their respective plights.

The talented company brings all of this to life. Jim Ahrens leads the way as Idomeneo, possessing both a beautiful voice and a world-weary attitude. His lamentations are stunning and beautiful, cutting out any distractions — whether passing cars or a bright sun — while he sings.

Brad Bradshaw has a fresh-faced innocence as Idamante, and his wooing of Ilia (the excellent Lauren Drasler) never feels forced, no matter how fantastic the situation they find themselves in.

All this combines to make for a thrilling, fun, and most of all joyful time at the theater — even if that theater happens to be a garden and the actors have to contend with the distractions of harvest-ready onions, peppers, and tomatoes.

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