Thursday, March 05, 2009

Kaspar Hauser

Photo/Ryan Jensen

When thinking about the famous foundling, Kaspar Hauser, the last thing that comes to mind is "opera"--after all, the fourteen-year-old boy had been imprisoned in the dark his whole life, was fed only bread and water, could not speak, and could hardly stand up straight at all. However, Elizabeth Swados has found the right genre for this story: the language isn't nearly as important as the voice. Furthermore, as Sondheim proved with Sweeny Todd, filth goes well with elegance: each illuminates the other.

Joining Swados is Erin Courtney, who helps to cast the story in a consistent narrative voice--that of the townspeople, every bit as curious as poor Kaspar. The contrast between their swarming, shifting perception and Kaspar's singular, growing awareness is nicely executed: visually and aurally, he is always swelling out of a flood of people and sound. It helps that Preston Martin, who plays the challenging role, is a marvel. Though he looks as if he's fresh out of Spring Awakening (Normandy Sherwood's costumes sustain this classic look), he nails the physicality of Kaspar, that ultimate fish out of water--see him drool, gape, moan, and contort. Just as the chorus freezes around him in a perfectly controlled tableau of shock, so too does he lock his own clumsy, wild actions down, learning to be more and more "human." These moments--where his eyes widen upon first recognizing himself in the mirror, where his jaw loosens a bit when seeing stars, or when he stands up a little straighter after attending a fancy ball--could justify any sort of drama; how terrific that the play's good, too.

The only thing floundering a little is the opera itself, which may be too ambitious for the Flea's space. Set designer John McDermott has wisely set the audience across the width of the mainstage, physically sacrificing depth for breadth, but the result is that the orchestra is far to stage left, and they don't always blend with the singing, especially when the actors are elevated in the cleverly constructed (but gallows-like) towers. The chorus is large and so the voices generally round things out by sheer volume, but this too presents problems, as the lyrics are sometimes reduced to "rabbles" from the crowd. Then again, this too is balanced by the purposeful mundanity of many of the lyrics--the ensemble is largely meant to be dismissed, and the characters who truely matter are generally buoyed above them, not buffetted below.

While it's a little odd to see an opera and marvel more at the physical direction and acting than the singing, it's hard to complain about two hours of solid entertainment.

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