Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Philemon and Baucis: A Planet in Peril
Mixed Precipitation
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


The Cast
Photo by Jaffa Aharonov
For its ninth annual Picnic Operetta, presented at parks, community gardens, nature centers, and other outdoor locales throughout the Twin Cities, the intrepid Mixed Precipitation has unearthed Philemon and Baucis, or Jupiter's Travels to the Earth, composed in 1773 by Joseph Hayden as a singspiel for marionettes, with a libretto by Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel based on his verse play. In its trademark style, Mixed Precipitation has changed the story to reflect modern issues, modifying the subtitle to A Planet in Peril, and to make the whole story delightfully goofy and campy. They have also, as is their custom, jettisoned much of Hayden's score and replaced it with contemporary tunes—in this case, all drawn from the catalog of the rock group Queen.

Along with its mash-up of opera and broad, topical comedy, complete with puns, sight-gags, clever props, expansive use of the outdoor playing area, and glib references to current events, Mixed Precipitation makes the event a picnic, serving tidbit samples of food and beverage at intervals during the show. These samplings—healthy, inventive fare (e.g., zucchini mini-cupcakes, watermelon canapes, seasoned broccolini spears)—are intended to be drawn from the narrative itself, though at times that connection is a stretch. For each sampling, trays are passed around the audience, seated on lawn chairs, blankets and picnic tables on a grassy lawn. It is a delightful mix of story, music, and food in a manner that creates a feeling of community among audience, actors, musicians and food purveyors.

Philemon and Baucis is based on mythology in which the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury descend to Earth, disguised as mortals while seeking people of good will. They find the people of Earth to be selfish and inhospitable, until they meet the keepers of a humble inn, Philemon and Baucis. Though impoverished, they provide their visitors with food and wine. To reward their hosts' kindness, the gods enchant the innkeepers' baskets and bottles so that they are always full, ensuring that Philemon and Baucis will never go hungry. Jupiter tells the couple to climb a mountain and not look back. As they follow the god's command, Jupiter destroys the town wracked by greed and evil with a flood. He turns Philemon and Baucis' inn into a temple and makes them its custodian. Later, when they face death, neither Philemon nor Baucis want to live without the other, so Jupiter arranges for them to die together and become intertwined trees, one a linden and one an oak.

Mixed Precipitation has tweaked just about every turn of this story. The Greek poet Ovid, credited with creating the original saga, here narrates the tale in which Jupiter and Mercury are transformed into Captain Jupiter and his sidekick Cadet Mercury, who ride their make-shift rocket to stave off the Earth's destruction by a hurling meteorite. They return to Earth expecting to be given a hero's welcome, only to have been forgotten, for the people of Earth are wrapped up in consumerism and disposable lifestyles, masterminded by the evil Barron Chaotica. Gentrification, lack of affordable housing, and eroding shore lines are among the Barron's tools for amassing wealth. Only the two goodhearted tavern-keepers, Philemon and Baucis, are welcoming to the gods. But they have their own woes, caring for two adopted insect children faced with the extinction of their respective species. Those two insects, Aret and Narcissa, have fallen in love—facing the challenge of an interspecies relationship along with the destruction of their natural environment. Their chances of survival are bleak. Oh, the tension!

Actually, there is no tension at all in this rendition of the story, as everything is presented with such a broad wink that even the serious themes within the narrative are treated with goof-ball humor. That would be a problem if one arrives at the Picnic Operetta expecting serious opera, or serious theater. But the tone of the whole enterprise, from the words of welcome, through the distribution of morsels of food, to the unlikely happy ending, is to set aside the serious business that infiltrates every moment of our lives, and have some fun. At that, Mixed Precipitation is highly successful.

The musical interludes alternate between Hayden's opera—with Pfeffel's libretto loosely translated onto scrolls that are enrolled for the audience's elucidation—and hits by Queen ("Another One Bites the Dust," "Hammer to Fall," "Who Wants to Live Forever," "Princes of the Universe," and "Under Pressure"). Surprisingly the opera pieces are more effective. For one thing, the lead actors, in addition to decent comic chops, possess strong and clear operatic voices, in particular Isaac Bont as Captain Jupiter, Alejandro Magallón as Philemon, and Anna Hashizume as Baucis. As the love bugs, Aret and Narcissa, Roland Hawkins II and Joni Griffiths project a chemistry that makes their romantic spots from the opera feel genuine (granted, an odd way to describe songs of love exchanged by insects). The Queen songs, on the other hand, all power anthems, are sung well enough but without the charged energy needed to really put them over. They come across as charming, rather than hard-rocking. Still, in this universe, as long as it's fun, it works. All of the music is played by a plucky four-piece band, with cello player Jason Kornelis doubling as Barron Chaotica, a villain you love to hate.

One winning quality of Mixed Precipitation's production is the use of young actors, along with those that have reached adulthood. In that category, Colin Woolson makes a droll Ovid, and Sander Huynh-Weiss is delightful as Bling, sidekick to Barron Chaotica. The entire cast is put through highly inventive choreography by Nancy Nair that does not require actual dancing, but uses movements to create witty stage images, while actually advancing the narrative. The costumes for the space-travelling gods and the insects are manifestations of the wit and affection that runs throughout the piece.

Director Scotty Reynolds pulls the enterprise joyfully together, no small feat considering frequent entrances from behind a barn, the wide lawn on which the main action is played, and the need to embrace the show's inherent lunacy while still telling a story. He even manages to add a bit of heartfelt emotion, albeit slight, in the show's closing moments.

Philemon and Baucis: A Planet in Peril, like past Picnic Operettas produced by Mixed Precipitation, is a lovely way to pass a couple of hours outdoors, laugh, enjoy some fine operatic voices, be charmed by inventive staging, and feel the warmth of being part of an impromptu community sharing a lawn, an adventure tale, and tasty treats. It is a unique experience, and its rewards go beyond the giddy business on stage.

Philemon and Baucis continues through September 24, 2017, at various locations around the Twin Cities. All performance sites are outdoors. Donation of $10.00 - $20.00 is suggested. For performance dates, locations and reservations go to mixedprecipitation.org. For ticket sales only, call 1-800-838-3006 (Brown Paper Tickets).

Music: Joseph Hayden; Libretto: Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel; Adopted by: Scotty Reynolds and Gary Ruschman, with contributions by Grace Thomas; Additional Music: Joseph Hayden, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon and David Bowie; Director: Scotty Reynolds; Music Director: Gary Ruschman; Production Manager: Jacob Miller; Assistant Stage Manager: Akiko Ostlund; Choreographer: Nancy Noir: Set and Props Designer: Paul Herwig; Costume Designer: Anna Sutheim; Collaborating Chef: Nick Schneider.

Cast: Isaac Bont (Captain Jupiter), Joni Griffith (Narcissa), Anna Hashizume (Baucis), Roland Hawkins II (Aret), Sander Huynh-Weiss (Bling), Alia Jeraj (ensemble), Jason Kornelis (Barron Chaotica), Alejandro Magallón (Philemon), Jacob Miller (ensemble), Maddie Neal (Cadet Mercury), Akiko Ostlund (ensemble), Jesse Pollock-Foote (ensemble), Nora Rickey (ensemble), and Colin Woolson (Ovid).


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