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Flash Review, 8-24: You Can't Go Home Again
"Tannhauser -- The Play" is the Thing, and it's X-rated

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By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2004 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK -- How encouraging to cross Wooster St. towards the Ohio Theater on Saturday night, August 14 and find a sign saying "Sold Out" above an exuberant crowd waiting to snap up wait-list tickets. Indeed, once we were seated the director of SoHo Think Tank, Robert Lyons, praised "Tannhauser -- The Play" as making this year's the most heavily-attended Ice Factory summer festival yet. So I thought it was a shame that Joseph Gallo's adaptation of the Wagner opera had a run of only four nights, but I guess I still have a lot to learn about the theater biz in NYC....

Limited run aside, I was tremendously impressed with the play, which must've required a huge amount of work to distill from a big ol' Wagner epic. Such "translation" has been commonplace for centuries: Many of Shakespeare's works have become operas and ballets. (And let's not forget "West Side Story.") Even "The Great Gatsby" and "Dead Man Walking" have gotten the operatic treatment in the last decade. As these latter have proved, it's very possible to saturate a story in great big music with mixed success... but this new "Tannhauser" dares to show us the skeleton, the armature of the sculpture, rendered into current times but containing the same timeless issues of love and longing.

But I'm no drama critic -- I won't presume to knowledgeably dissect Gallo's work nor that of director Frank Licato. My interest here is to speak about the dance quotient of the production, that which drew me there in the first place to claim one of these tough-to-get tickets. Wisely, I suppose, this production wasn't entitled "Tannhauser - The Musical" (that could probably get a little thorny with the music critics) but there was music (pop and rock, but no obvious Wagner) all over the place and dancing too, very good dancing.

"Tannhauser"'s basic plot involves the eventual stirring of the hero's conscience after a period of gilded-cage luxury, namely a year of corporeal delights in the temple of Venus. A ray of memory somehow pierces Tann's dissolution, and he joins a pilgrimage back to earlier locales, where he remembers devoting his songs to God and goodness instead of simple carnality. He reconnects with old friends, his old love, and seems to be "back on the path" but succumbs to doubt and habit: the memory of Venus lures him back, but he cannot un-learn the conflict in his heart -- he is thereafter trapped between these two poles, never at rest, hurting all who he was close to, most of all himself.

Can this sort of thing work in the present day? Mercy yes! Gallo has updated things to depict Tannhauser (now Rick) as the male-end of a wildly successful homegrown husband-and-wife porn site ("www.venus.net," based in Los Angeles.) Thankfully dance comes into play here in the initial scene in their home (Venus's lair.) Choreographer Sarah Weber has applied her talents and corps-of-seven to replicate the wanton atmosphere that beckons from doorways and web sites the world over, but not as simple pantomime or improvised simulations -- all was intentional, slyly suggestive, and above all advanced the storyline by drawing Rick deeper into a world that was no longer private, no longer personal. Weber's choreo-structures jumped forward and receded perfectly, peaking and fading like small flames: the dance architecture was constantly shifting between asserting itself as display for the hungry web-cam viewers and then morphing into a miasma that pulls Rick in among uncomfortable issues.

Subsequently, a hectoring radio interview with the star couple forces Rick to address his guilt, jealousy and longing, and shakes him from his ennui. He abruptly leaves Venus and makes his pilgrimage back East to see if he can pick up the pieces of his life. A one-time singer, he -- like so many folks -- believes that by enacting the old rituals with the old cast and sets he can re-claim lost grace. In this case, it's the glories of singing with friends at the old karaoke club, SingAlong. Though his hometown buddies are dismayed to see him and dubious of his where've-you-been story, he persuades them to join him for another go-around in their old haunt. Again the dancers frame this scene beautifully, especially in some fine solo work in the person of Caroline Copeland. The atmosphere here is jubilant, free and expressive, again treated by Weber with just the right light touch, throwing in subtle references to the other "Venus" scene. I'd probably call the dance ensemble the "chorus" of this play, referencing the earliest kind of theater, so intertwined were they into the action of the scenes as well as commenting on and driving the plot deeper. A wise choice to include them!

The dancers re-appear "explicitly" in a later scene with Venus -- Rick's short-lived attempt to reconcile with the temptress -- and once more their work is so much more than orgiastic posing. In what might be called the opening credits sequence in a webcast, the cast's dancing was sinewy and beckoning, and again Rick betrays himself twice, unable to live peacefully with either choice of love. Sarah Webber's done an excellent job of walking the line here, serving the story well and giving us some great work to look at.

All of the dancers were marvelous, and they are Elke Rindfleisch, Lisa Matsuoka, Jennifer Manino, Wanjiru Kamuyu, Tim Wilson, McCree O'Kelley, and Ms. Copeland.

I hope that theatergoers will in the future have more extensive opportunities to see what I'm talking about in a longer run.... Loved it!

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