Sideshow Mozart

Schlock me, Amadeus: Papageno (Bradley Greenwald) faces off with Pamina (Jennifer Baldwin Peden) in Jeune Lune's The Magic Flute

"You are confused, but in a happy way." So yelps the enigmatic maitre d' played by Steven Epp near the start of Theatre de la Jeune Lune's wild and bewildering adaptation of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. He is addressing Tamino, Mozart's dashing hero, but he may as well be speaking to the audience, who, through most of the first act, has seen nary a trace of Mr. Mozart and scant evidence that any sort of opera is on the evening's bill. Epp's waiter has already introduced us at length to the eccentric denizens of the Viennese beer hall into which Tamino (Patrick Miller) has wandered. There are rumblings of a plot, too, in the meeting of Tamino and Papageno (Bradley Greenwald), a buffoon who seems vaguely familiar from Mozart's original. If we demand more sense than that, Epp suggests, we ought to gather our schnitzel and go home. This is Jeune Lune's dance, and we had best follow.

If memory serves, Mozart's opera is a rather dizzying fairy tale in which two lovers, Tamino and Pamina, are separated by a malevolent Egyptian deity, then reunited by a less malevolent Egyptian deity. None of this happens in Jeune Lune's production--or, rather, all of this happens, but is lost in the to-ings and fro-ings of the beer hall. In adapting the opera, it seems, the Jeune Lune crew has responded less to the particulars of the tale than to its ethos. The Magic Flute debuted in a Viennese "free theater," a rowdy, low-rent venue in which the proprieties of the day gave way to an atmosphere that might be called carnivalesque. In homage, directors Dominique Serrand and Barbra Berlovitz go to great lengths to capture the gauche charm of a three-ring circus: Their production, set in what amounts to an enormous cabaret, is strung with candy-colored lights and saturated with the tinkling of glassware. Theirs, too, is a people's theater, and the people do not brook stodginess gladly.

The evening's ringmasters, played by Epp and Berlovitz , are a pair of sardonic clowns who guide the audience at mercuric pace through the opera's foreground. There is talk of Mozart, and the intermittent performance of music from his Magic Flute, but the collected wisdom of Yoda and Yogi Berra carries equal weight. At some point, Tamino, a hapless, good-looking Italian fellow, wanders into the house of mirrors, and is commissioned by the Queen of the Night (Janet Gottschall Fried) to find Pamina (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), a comely waif who bears some resemblance to Kate Moss (and a good deal of midriff). Tamino is accompanied by Papageno, and the Three Ladies (Johanna Harley, Jill Ponasik, and Janis Hardy), enigmatic spirits in Mozart's play, and a grotesque tricolored tri-chorus in Jeune Lune's. There is a rather stirring polyphonic aria, and, for a moment, an opera threatens to break out. Then Epp smirks, "What was that all about?"

There is considerable challenge in de-starching Mozart without denuding his work of its meditative essence. While Jeune Lune, accompanied by a small orchestra, keeps much of Mozart's score intact, Serrand and librettists Epp and Bradley Greenwald waltz gleefully over the composer's graver strains. In their sideshow the Queen is a less a malevolent figure than a caricature of malevolence itself--a chalky and bloated grande dame who looks as though she has just been dragged from the sea after a lengthy submergence. Fried's Queen and Mark Dietrich's Sarastro offer fine, ridiculous ripostes to the Wagnerian excess of their characters. In voice and in presence, they send up the coloratura of Mozart's score. At the same time, they balance the sweetness and light of Pamina and Tamino.

For all the wit of Jeune Lune's libretto, however, there is more Spiel than Singen in this Singspiel. In one scene Papageno's head pokes out of a soup bowl to surprise Pamino, who sits with spoon poised. Elsewhere, a giant red serpent glides out of the wings while its tail slithers in through the opposite end of the theater. The set piece of the second act is a ludicrously raked stage, which the cast slides down--still singing--like joyless penguins on the side of an ice floe. Whether this, too, is intended as homage to the carnivalesque--or the company's imagination running away with the show--remains an open question. Like God and bowels, Jeune Lune moves in mysterious ways.

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