Wednesday, October 13, 2010

If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it

"Opera Baroque" -- one of the offerings at this year's Ringling International Art Festival -- is adapted from the 18th-century “Czech Opera About a Comically Small Crooked-Looking Chimney Built by Masons, or the Quarrel Between the Landlords and Its Masons.” It's a puppet show. But that's kinda like saying Jimi Hendrix was a guy who played the guitar.

The Forman brothers are pulling the strings. (Actually only two are brothers: Matej and Petr Forman. Milan Forman, in synchronistic coincidence, has the same last name.) The Formans are determinedly working class. They remind me of the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers. They come out -- in blue striped shirts and big smiles -- in a parody of desperate audience ingratiation.

Before the show opens, the "brothers" get into some bits of business with the audience. Making a big production out of it, they polish the glasses of the folks in the front row. One brother emerges as the spokesman. He discusses the translation problem. (It's too much of a problem, so they won't translate.) He advises you to lower your expectations. "This is a puppet show. Many people find this boring."

He explains the opera's plot. Two workers put up a chimney. It falls down. The husband yells at them. Then the wife yells at them. That's it. That's the whole opera.

The dude gets apologetic again. "In Czechoslovakia, wives do a lot of yelling. It is only our country. We're not saying anything about American wives."

A dude in a powdered wig (Vitezslav Janda) sits down at the keyboard.(A synthesizer pretending to be a harpsichord.) The audience forgets to applaud, so the spokesbrother reminds them.

And so, the opera begins. As foretold, the two masons screw up the job. Building a chimney. You'd think it'd be simple, but no. The brothers Forman have added a trio of three demonically bratty brothers to the original opera, along with a Mozart-like piano tutor. The kids can't play "Frere Jacques" ...? The tutor solves the problem by hitting them. The brats annoy the masons? The masons hit them with shovels. Along the way, the puppeteers' hands reach down from the sky like the hands of God himself.

Later on, they stop the action. One brother has artistic differences. He's shouting in Czechoslovakian and ready to walk out. The spokesman explains, "My brother's not happy with the way we did that scene. He thinks it's too rushed. We can either start the opera from the beginning or do the scene in slow motion." So they do the scene in slow motion. After they make such a big deal out of it, here's what you get: The bratty little kid dances around. The scowling mason takes the shovel and whacks him into the stratosphere.

The comic timing is nothing less than brilliant. It reminds me of the classic Warner Brothers cartoon greats -- McKimson, Clampett, Avery and Jones. The brothers are constantly interrupting the action and making you think about the elaborate machinery of the show. I'd call it post-modern, but I suspect they're not operating from an academic playbook. It's just funny, that's all.

The slapstick is gut-bustingly funny in its own right. Of course, there's a satiric target, too: Opera. The stage is a dinky little puppet theater stage. It’s not impressive in any way shape or form, but it’s done up like a grandiose opera hall.

This is an opera about two schleps who can't put up a chimney. The stars of the opera are puppets. It's anything but grandiose. But they play it that way.

It's perfectly hilarious.

And the perfect anecdote to artistic pretension.

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