Monday, November 26, 2007

The Fickle Finger of Farce

In many ways, farce is one of the most enjoyable forms of entertainment. Yet, of all the theatrical genres, it is often the most difficult to stage with any success. Solid writing helps. But in order to succeed, a good farce requires (1) an implausible situation filled with mistaken identities, (2) a tight dramatic ensemble and (3) split-second timing from the actors. With those three ingredients solidly in place, even a fairly innocuous sitcom can become a side-splitting evening of entertainment when placed in the hands of a superbly talented director.

Whether staging a classic Feydeau farce or a British sex comedy like Run For Your Wife, it's essential for the director to bring the audience into the situation early in the plot and make sure that they are rooting for the actors all the way. Unfortunately, many people in the audience have forgotten that they go to the theater to be entertained. That's why it's always a joy to encounter good comedy (rather than tired shtick) onstage and appreciate it for what it is: entertainment. Although their operatic values may have been less than exemplary, two recent productions registered strongly on the farcical scale.


When I first saw Lend Me A Tenor in London in 1986, I got a kick out of Ken Ludwig's slapdash comedy in which, in a fit of despondence, a famous tenor mixes sleeping pills with liquor and passes out in a Cleveland hotel room just prior to his long-awaited performance in Verdi's Otello. Although Ludwig's play is set in 1934, his giddy script does a delicious job of capturing the inane social agendas of those who operate on the periphery of an opera company. In quick succession the audience is introduced to the bullheaded producer, the meek but aspiring patsy who wants to marry the producer's daughter, the producer's ditsy wife (who is also the celebrity-crazed chairwoman of the Opera Guild), and a stagestruck bellhop who would do anything for a chance to audition for the famous Tito Merelli. When you add the tenor's jealous wife and a small-town soprano (who hopes to get into the tenor's pants as a means of furthering her career) to the plot, it becomes obvious why chaos will ensue.

With Ron Holgate repeating his delightful portrayal of the lecherous and egomaniacal Tito Merelli, Lend Me A Tenor survived its trip across the Atlantic quite well. Victor Garber brought a softer edge to the role of Max (the fumbling assistant who substitutes for the Italian tenor) while Jane Connell added her usual frantic energy to the character of Julia (guild lady extraordinaire). Tovah Feldshuh scored strongly as Maria Merelli, with winning cameos coming from Caroline Lagerfelt as the provincial soprano, Jeff Brooks as the artistically frustrated bellhop and J. Smith-Cameron as Max's girlfriend, Maggie. As the General Manager of the Cleveland Opera Company, Philip Bosco blustered his way through the performance: a perfect bully in every regard.

The American production of Lend Me A Tenor (directed with crisp flair by Jerry Zaks) was handsomely framed by Tony Walton's stunning Art Deco set and William Ivey Long's deliciously suave costumes. However, I found that the greatest joy in seeing Lend Me A Tenor again came from sitting next to a friend of mine who, as artistic administrator of a major opera company, must constantly deal with cancellations by international artists. Having just been put through the stress test of death by Placido Domingo, the look of sadistic glee on his face as he watched Philip Bosco attempt to shake the narcotized body of Tito Merelli out of a somnolent state by pounding the comatose tenor's head into the pillows while strangling him, added an extra-special touch of realism and spice to the performance.


Without any doubt, the contemporary novelty in this year's repertoire at the Santa Fe Opera was the American premiere of Judith Weir's A Night At The Chinese Opera. A strangely-structured work whose first act is political, second act resembles a combination of vaudeville and theater of the ridiculous, and third act invokes a spirit of Eastern meditation on a Chinese riddle, Weir's opera is unlike anything else in the current repertoire.

While much of its score holds a certain pseudo-Oriental appeal, the composer seems to have trouble finding a musical thread which can sustain her opera over the course of an entire evening. By the time A Night At The Chinese Opera got to embrace the lyricism of its third act, one no longer really cared what happened.

There are mitigating factors for this and I should explain them. At the performance I attended, most of Act I took place during a severe downpour which drenched the audience in Santa Fe's semi-outdoors theater. The rain made it extremely difficult to concentrate on what was happening onstage and, as a result, almost impossible for the audience to get hooked into the dramatic thrust of Weir's new opera. A somewhat drier Act II proved to be a tremendous crowd-pleaser in which several utterly ridiculous political/vaudeville skits were delivered with great panache by Joyce Castle, Anthony Laciura and Kathryn Gamberoni. As they enacted multiple roles, a series of stage accidents with their props added to the audience's delight. While the slapstick humor of Act II was a welcome relief from the wetness of Act I, there was little of musical interest in the score to Act II. Although Weir saved most of her best and "most serious" music for Act III, by that time, A Night At The Chinese Opera seemed to be floundering under its own pretenses.

Nevertheless, I was impressed with James Busterud's sobering performance as the adult Chao Lin and delighted with the work of Castle, Laciura and Gamberoni as the three prisoners who were Chinese actors. Even though the "Marco Polo" segment which opened Act III seemed to get the biggest laughs of the evening (for all the wrong reasons), there was much to enjoy in Robert Carsen's production and Michael Levine's imaginative set and costume designs. John David De Haan, Drew Minter, John Kuether, Philip Zawisza, Douglas Perry and Judith Christin performed in supporting roles while George Manahan conducted in spite of the weather. Under better circumstances, I might have found this piece more interesting. As things turned out, the biggest challenge of the evening (for both the instrumentalists and the people in the audience) was to find a way to stay dry.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 31, 1989.

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