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When the Inmates
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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