Downtown, Wotan Gets Ready to Rumble

Sunday, April 29, 2012 - 11:49 AM

The last few decades have brought a litany of alternate realities for Wagner's Ring Cyle, from science-fiction version to 75-minute condensations of the 16-hour music drama. Writing for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini recently noted that the “metaphor of Wotan as the CEO of the Valhalla Corporation is becoming a cliché.”

One metaphor we’ll probably never need worry about turning cliché, however, is that of Wotan as wrestling icon Randy “Macho Man” Savage. But that’s just as well. It would be disappointing indeed to lose that singular buzz that comes from seeing fresh and engaging theater such as Performance Lab 115’s The Ring Cycle (Parts 1–4) at Incubator Arts Project in the East Village. And if you’re going to have the audacity it takes to do the Ring in the first place, why not add a little more cojones to the equation?

Director Dave Dalton, who cowrote the 135-minute show with Jeremy Beck, writes in his program note that the unexpected pairing of Wagner and Saturday morning wrestling yields some juicy parallels, particularly for modern American audiences who can identify with "incredible spectacle, characters with huge egos, and devoted fans.” Wotan, as Dalton and Beck discovered, "with his epic struggle between right and might, is surprisingly at home in the squared circle." And the show does in fact live up to its director’s vision, performed as it is with integrity, conviction and commitment by a cast of ten often doing double– and triple–duty to account for Wagner’s endless cast of characters. Some, like Erda, the Norns, Hagen, Gunther and Gutrune, are left on the cutting room floor, with others filling in the gaps.


Marty Keiser as Alberich and Jeff Clarke as Wotan. Photo: Sue Kessler

No matter: While PL115 makes a case for the gods becoming icons of ‘80s excess (and hair) and for finding witty connections. Fricka, for example, is a stiletto-heeled trophy wife, Sieglinde is the wan wife assembling Miracle-Whip-and-Wonder-Bread sandwiches for her redneck Hunding, Siegfried is a He-Man–esque Eagle Scout who forges not a sword but a champion belt. Even the opening use of "The Final Countdown" is a surprisingly apt stand-in for the Rheingold prelude—they don’t seek to nail (or body-slam) every minute detail down into a direct, oversimplified translation. Freia still has golden apples that give the wrestling gods their powers. The Rhinemaidens may be strippers, dancers or escorts, but they still worship their Rheingold, an apt metaphor for the heady era of Reaganomics.

As an audience member, you happily roll with each joke, whether it's an inside Wagnerism or something as overt as a Loge reimagined as something reminiscent of Hank Azaria’s character in The Birdcage. In fact, in the grand tradition of wrestling culture, you’re encouraged to continuously respond with catcalls, trash talk, cheers and jeers as the myriad of conflicts and confrontations are settled in the ring, far from Wagner’s ideal of a silent, submissive audience allowing nearly a day’s worth of opera to wash over them.

But that’s where PL115’s vision truly merges gesamtkunstwerk with zeitgeist. The contemporary audience is an interactive beast, looking to invest in the art and become the master of its own artistic fate. We still want the ride, but rather than merely go along, we want to occasionally take the wheel, sharing in the glory of the gods. 

Yet there are moments in which the performers are in full control. As Wotan, Jeff Clarke embraced a growly baritonal intonation—an affectation of über-manliness—and initially made frequent trips to the front row of the audience for a round of high-fives. This made for an even more affectinge Walküre finale, in which he makes a truly terrifying entrance among the valkyries and abandons his favorite, badass daughter Brünnhilde (the charming and indefatigable Sara Buffamanti) in a way that’s truly heartbreaking.


The Company. Photo: Sue Kessler

Sly, too, are the assignations of actors to varied roles; leaving Jeremy Beck to play, among other roles, those of Siegmund and Mime, illustrating a dichotomy of fatherhood in Wagner’s text that is traditionally unnoticed. And when a strobe-lit immolation-slash-electrocution scene destroys all but Alberich (a sympathetic Marty Keiser), he quickly realizes that supreme power is only relative to how many people are around to be denizens of such power. It’s not a grand spectacle of hellfire and brimstone, but it still delivers a poignant moral. And while this Valhalla may have crumbled for the last time Sunday at the Incubator Arts Project, it begs for a revival: Here is a Ring worth reliving.

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Comments [3]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

One typo, I should have written Mr. America, Gerald Krisinski, and the plural "contact sports performers."
There's always room for improvement. Wagner wrote the Bacchanale, the balletic orgy in Venus' domain, Venusberg, for his opera Tannhauser for its Paris premiere after the male contingent of a fashionable private elite club, the Jockey Club, complained that their girlfriends in the ballet did not have an opportunity to perform. This version of Tnnnhauser is known as the Paris version, the original as the Dresden version. Verdi rewrote, revised La Forza del Destino, Un Ballo di Maschera, Don Carlo and Rigoletto for political reasons, the current monarchies objected to a half breed, Don Alvaro in Forza killing a member of the aristocracy, the royal family; the killing of the head of state, Riccardo, in Un bBallo, a reference to the Swedish king; the sinister Spanish Inquisitor requesting King Philup II assassinate his friend and political colleague, and then the Inquisitor later attempting to have killed Don Carlo, Philip's son riled up the Catholic church; and the reference of a lecherous Duke, actually Francis I in real life, enraging the royalists as to the possible consequences. Shakespeare's play Macbeth and Verdi's La Forza del Destino are often hazard prone. I sang a performance as Don Alvaro when my stretcher carriers had one of their number lose hold of the stretcher and I landed on my back on the hardwood floor of the stage. Moments after that the music for the famed duet "Solenne in quest'ora" began and I came in on cue with those very first words. The applause for my instant recovery was as if I had just magnificently with clarion tones sung the "Di quella pira" with its two high Cs. Such is life. LIVE IT UP !!!

May. 01 2012 02:13 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton,

Let's remember spoofing and "variations on" have been formulated by even the greatest autrhors and composers on their peers and fellow contemporaries and even on subjects such as BEOWULF! So9, let's encourage such endeavors to bring new points of view and new life to "chestnuts." TOSCANINI was a big, big fan of wrestling as indeed many otherwise scholarly and professorial personalities have too. I remember Mt. America, Backlund, Man Mountain Dean, the true giant Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and dozens of other "contact sport performer." ALL THE BEST TON ALL CONCERNED !!! We had no Lincoln Center when I studied at Juilliard on Claremont Avenue and 122nd street, the original site for Juilliard, nor did we have anything but '78's and chapel shaped radios with only AM reception. The skyscraper or at least massive structures that now dominate our musical cultural scene were yet to arrive, but we did have the top composers, singers and conductors fleeing from devastated Europe after WWII and teaching at Juilliard. Born and living in Jersey City, NJ I had the distinct advantage of proximity to the Met Opera and the New York City Opera to attend, at minimum cost, two to three times weekly, at standing room, from age 15, performances of a wide rep by major singers whose like simply does not exist today. At age 10 I heard on WNYC a broadcast of the recording of Toscanini's conducting the New York Philharmonic in the Rhine Journey and Funeral Music. This recording was made long, long before his recording with the NBC Symphony. That hearing encouraged me to borrow from our major library in Jersey City, on Jersey Avenue, the piano vocal scores of all the Wagner operas from Der fliegender Hollander to Parsifal and the full orchestra scores of the RING and TRISTAN. I started studying composition, composing, and as an autodidact at that time, singing. Taking at different comfortable octaves, I studied, "sang" all the major male roles, marginalizing the David, Mime, Alberich, Young Sailor, and their peer brothers whose roles did not interest me. MY professional career started at age 17. My study of voice with Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Margarete Matzernauer, Frieda Hempel, Martial Singher, Mack Harrell, John Brownlee and Karin Branzell, all leading singers at the Met Opera before they retired, prepared me for my rep decisions. Schorr, Kipnis and Singher I saw in performances at the Met long before I got to study with them. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, a Wagnerian heldentenor and an opera composer of "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare." Live performance has a special quality that no matter how sophisticated the recording home entertainment "Theaters" they will never replace the Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center or similar performance sites.

May. 01 2012 10:57 AM
SusanW from NYC

I saw this performance with my g/f (we are both major "Ring" fans) and my nephew (who had never seen an opera and never heard of Wagner...I gave him the Speedy Ring Cycle wrapup over brunch). We all loved the production... amazingly true to the original, very well acted and adapted. Hilariously funny in parts and also very touching in others (yes, Alberich does indeed come across as sad-ass loser and far more sympathetic than I have ever seen him played at the Met). So many clever bits...the giant jar of cheese doodles and "Ring of Fire" soundtrack were especially funny. I sincerely hope that Performace Lab revives this yet again...it is truly a treat for opera and non-opera fans alike. Bravo!

Apr. 30 2012 12:43 PM

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