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When the Inmates Rule 'Messiah'

By Albert Lee
Copyright 1999 Albert Lee

Millennial Arts is nothing if not bold. In its production of Handel's "Messiah," seen Saturday at the John Jay College Theater, the evening's first aria is sung by a schizophrenic (Mark Bleeke) in an O.R. gown, who wobbles and clutches his head while singing, "Comfort ye my people."

Where was the Catholic League when director Eric Fraad decided that "Messiah" was the nattering of the mentally ill?

Fraad, with producer Paula Heil Fisher, is staging the Christmas oratorio this year as an opera. In this curious adaptation, set inside Bedlam, Britain's infamous insane asylum, the arias and choruses are an elaborate "psychodramatic" cure for insanity -- envisioned as a kind of cathartic group therapy -- which the program notes describe as a "journey of individuation and socialization." It's a tale in which the chief psychiatrist figures himself God and climbs into a big thundercloud to scare the patients. All in all, it's rather odd.

Fraad's is a cold staging. Robert Pyzocha has designed a set to deaden the emotions -- stark white tiles with security cameras and a red digital clock, panels that open to reveal shop window-like stages, geometric arrangements of clear boxes containing skulls, wheel-mounted scaffolding, and crosses of flourescent bulbs. Lighting whiz Mimi Jordan Sherin jacks it up with queasy colors like yellow, green, and white. In this odd world the asylum inmates, draped in pastel-colored gowns designed by Hussein Chalayan, hobble around singing Handel's music.

In fact the entirety of "Messiah" is sung by the patients, who are played by members of the Baroque Opera Institute. The medical staff, except for the chief psychiatrist, is comprised of dancers (Alyssa Dodson, Eric Hoisington, Kerry Stichweh, and Jordana Toback, led by dancer and choreographer Ruth Davidson). This conceit is a headache: It results in the action often unfolding away from whoever is singing. The stage is frequently a mess, with no consistent visual or dramatic focus -- nurses twirling upstage, the chorus of patients scattering and regrouping, a Hasidic psychiatrist huddling, God (the chief psychiatrist) descending in his cloud from the flies, while someone somewhere is belting out a solo.

Why is there so much unfolding at once? Opera, like its cousin the musical, is an essentially absurd medium, and demands broad strokes to justify its own grandiosity. It is big and bulky and extravagant, and generally tolerates one small plot step at a time. But the vehicle for Fraad's baroque narrative is an ill-chosen one -- a near-three-hour 18th-century oratorio lacking the basic ingredients for theatrical adaptation: dramatic characters and action.

So, to help tell the story, a troupe of dancers is tossed into the fray, and the result is a battle royal between for our attention. How confusing. The music generally wins -- if only because it's the only consistent idea -- and the poor dancers are shunted to the side. Not that operatic choreography is ever that interesting to me, to tell the truth; it's a lot of pantomime, gesticulation and arm-thrusting.

We are not left with much. Fraad has put a chill on the music of exaltation, and strangely this is his probable intent. An asylum isn't a cheery place, of course. But it's hard not to shake the sense that the music is deadened inside Bedlam. Conductor Kenneth Hamrick does a valiant job that's faithful to the score, and though the production's tone is ingenuous, never mocking (the patients are ultimately saved), the sterile mood overwhelms any possibility for reverence, or at least the possibility that we might be moved.

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