La Didone at REDCAT

The following is a review of The Wooster Group’s La Didone at REDCAT by L.A.-based writer Matthew Lurie.

photo by Paula Court

photo by Paula Court

First things first: Many potential attendees will justifiably wonder whether knowing La Didone or Planet of the Vampires, the two main texts on display here, should be a prerequisite to attending this performance. And my answer to you is this: It doesn’t matter. The Wooster Group’s inter-textual mind-melt so thoroughly reinvents each piece, knowing the originals might even be a hindrance.

On the tails of Star Trek‘s re-entrance into American pop culture, the Los Angeles premiere of La Didone weaves sci-fi into opera for some truly otherworldly results.

While the New York-based Wooster Group has long combined together different texts for its productions—last year’s Hamlet saw a radically edited version of Gielgud’s film combined with a live drama of the Shakespeare itself—this production’s disparates are particularly unusual. On one side is Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone, a somewhat light Baroque opera from the 17th century, based on Virgil’s tragic story of Dido and Aeneas from The Iliad; on the other is Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, a disturbing bit of proto-David Lynch Italian science fiction cinema from the 1960s. The breathtaking parallels and intersections The Wooster Group finds—augmented by four young, beautiful, phenomenally talented operatic vocalists—makes for an evening of camp, tragedy and unexpected revelation.

And really, nothing is sacred here: The opera of La Didone, for example, has been trimmed down to just its main arias, wiping out the endless repetition of said arias that tends to drag so much on modern audiences. And rather than using a baroque chamber ensemble for the music, the Wooster employs a “band” featuring baroque guitar, accordion, crazy sound effects and electric guitar. And Vampires gets chopped and screwed as well, with onstage televisions referencing both various scenes from the film as well as the action onstage. The group’s most anti-Hollywood gesture can be found right here: All six of the “post” (or pre?) production wizards do their work transparently, right next to the singers and actors onstage. Wooster almost dares the audience to imagine these computer-fiddling sound designers, for example, as part of the story itself.

But despite the production values, it’s the live performances which are most breathtaking. With the ensemble telling two stories simultaneously, each performer plays anywhere from two to five different characters and the contrast between these roles can be a joy to witness. Wooster’s Scott Shepherd plays not just Wess, the ubër-serious Spock of the spaceship team, but also a wild boar being hunted down for fun by Dido’s posse. And Ari Fliakos’s pitch-perfect Captain Mark, full of the Don Quixote-like self-assuredness of a William Shatner, also plays a devious Cupid that helps Dido fall for Aeneas.

Leads from both ensembles deserve special mention: Fliakos is comic genius; and Kate Valk’s Sanya draws out the irony of her female character’s submissive role. What’s more, Hai-Ting Chinn (Dido), whether half-naked or not, brings a crystalline beauty to every note she sings while Andrew Nolen (Jarbas) has a high falsetto that would make Antony (Hercules and Love Affairs) blush. Such high-level performances from the vocalists on an empty stage would be reason enough for applause, but seeing them do these arias while the Wooster Group nearly laughs in their faces will make you appreciate these ambitious singers threefold.

Quibbles are to be had: Occasionally the action longed for a bigger stage, where the spacing might feel clearer and less claustrophobic (Then again, maybe that’s the point). And I found myself squinting a bit at the font size of some of the super titles which you will inevitably forget to read at some points. (But as the Stuart Smalley in your head will point out: That’s ok.)

La Didone could have been a pedantic exercise on two pieces of art you really should know. But Wooster, all winks, nods, and teases, gives the audience a sense that to them, this is somewhere far, far away from the Ph.D. thesis from hell. In fact, it’s fun.

A former staff music critic for Time Out Chicago, Matthew Lurie specializes in jazz, pop and the many places today they meet up. Past outlets include Modern Painters, Downbeat, and a spell as the Chicago correspondent for BBC’s “Jazz on 3.” Lurie currently resides in Los Angeles where his band, Matthew and the Mainstream, tries to write dumb pop music.

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