Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Hamilton
To make it a real picnic, throughout the performance, trays of artfully prepared food, in sample-size servings, are passed around the audience, each edible related in some way to a phrase, setting, or plot point in the show. For example, after uttering the phrase "a rolling stone gathers no moss," we are served popcorn balls flecked with kale.
Adapter (and Mixed Precipitation's artistic director) Scotty Reynolds has long sought to adopt this piece and set it in on the north shore of Lake Superior, from where he hails. Because the narratives of the operas chosen typically defy credibility anyway, the far-fetched plotting Mixed Precipitation devises is easy to roll with. In this case, Reynolds reduces the complexity of Nicolai's opera to two tandem plotlines. One, taken from the original work but tweaked to fit into rural Minnesota, is about deceitful hedonist Dr. John Falstaff who shows up in a small north shore mining town and makes wildly inappropriate and unwelcome advances to two of the burg's most respectable woman, nurse Judy Ford and librarian Arlene Page. The two wives conspire to humiliate Falstaff, while Mrs. Ford's jealous husband, miner worker Stan Ford, harbors suspicions that his wife has succumbed to the lecherous intruder. Falstaff is made to appear ridiculous throughout, especially when wearing a set of moose antlers made of hockey sticks that you have to see to believe.
The second plotline pits the town's taconite miners and those whose livelihood depends on the mining economy, against fishermen seeking government action to stop the mine from polluting the lake, fouling the water, and killing off the fish that are their livelihood. Characters from both camps are seen carrying protest signs and riding a rough bus down to the capital in St. Paul, where a suit against the mine is being tried. This second plotline obviously mirrors the very real current fight over a proposal to build s copper-nickel mine on the edge of the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It also brings to mind the protests staged this past year against the Line 3 pipeline set to run across the state, being fought by environmentalists and tribal leaders worried about environmental risks, particularly to wetlands that have commercial, recreational and spiritual value. Reynolds weakly ties the two narrative strands together by having Falstaff buy up all of the town's failed businesses and foreclosed homes, profiting from the economic losses incurred by both miners and fisherman.
To reinforce the theme of hometown values and the indignities done to working class folks, Dr. Falstaff... incorporates songs by Bruce Springsteen into the storyline, including "Badlands," "Dancing in the Dark," "My Hometown," and "Blinded by the Light." In an especially witty scene, Falstaff sings the steamy "I'm on Fire" to woo Judy and Arlene, as they resist, singing Nicolai's "Nein! Das ist wirklich doch zu keck." Songs from Nicolai's Die Lustigen Weiber Von Windsor are used throughout as well, including two of the opera's most popular pieces, "Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain" and "Als Büblein klein." Yes, those are all sung in German, but English translations are provided. Lacking a proscenium arch on which to project the lyrics, there are a variety of clever ways to present translations, including hanging them on a clothesline, as a laundry basket figures into the story at one point. These are not literal translations, not even closebut get the point of the lyrics across, sometimes with a smart aleck sensibility that seems totally right for the occasion.
While everything about a Picnic Operetta is fun and fanciful, by no means does the cast lack talent. Both male leads, Nick Miller as Falstaff and Alex Adams-Leytes as Stan Ford, have full baritones that find the beauty in the Nicolai melodies. Naomi Karstad in particular brings her lustrous soprano to the role of Judy Ford. While those three have the strongest voices in the company, Anna Hashizume as Arlene Page and Joni Griffith as Sandy Quicklybarmaid, bus driver, and community organizeralso sing their roles with gusto. Doug Christiansen, as miner Leif Hove, delivers a break from the mayhem with his poignant "My Hometown."
The cast members' strong voices are matched by skilled comic acting. Miller is off the charts funny with his constantly suggestive movements and facial expressions, as if he believes he is the answer to every women's sex fantasy. Karstad and Hashizume do a fine job as buttoned-up working women, staunch and practical, who are much smarter than the men around them. Most winning is Griffith, hilarious, in every one of her scenes. Her vibrant delivery of Reynolds' lines is matched with spirited physicality. The ensemble members play various smaller roles, and join in the choral numbers, especially impressing with a lovely "Mondaufgang Chor: O sußer Mond!" sung as a faux moon rises.
The direction by Kym Longhi imaginatively deploys the talented company and witty design work to unspool this unlikely but totally delightful story. Kristi Ternes' set design makes good use of the open meadow on which the play is performed, with simple, easily movable elements creating the suggestion of each location. Teresa Mock and Rhiannon Fiskradaatz have designed ingenious costumes with the rag-tag quality of a troupe of travelling players, yet each suits the character wearing it. Music director Gary Ruschman leads four other musicians to provide accompaniment that has an agreeably homespun sound.
Mixed Precipitation's Picnic Operettas may not be for everyone. They are not serious, do not aspire to be high art, nor do they have impressive production values. You have to sit outside on a blanket or folding chairs that you provide yourself, and be willing to engage with your fellow audience members as you pass around the food trays. They are fun and entertaining, with a light heart and a wink. They craftily imbed a moral or two, and allow audiences who may never attend full-flown operas to have the pleasure of hearing genuine operatic voicesor, for those who do attend opera, a chance to enjoy see the form poked fun at, in a good-hearted manner that, much as it re-invents the source material, never disrespects it. The cast and crew are clearly having a wonderful time, and their high spirits are infectious.
Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County is my fourth Picnic Operetta, and the best I have seen yet, with strong staging and performances, and a good-hearted tone throughout. If you are in the market for something different that greets you with a grin, I recommend you try it.
Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County , through October 7, 2018, 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, visit mixedprecipitation.org. For ticket sales only, call 1-800-838-3006 (Brown Paper Tickets).
Music: Otto Nicolai; Libretto: Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare; Adopted by: Scotty Reynolds; Additional Music: Bruce Springsteen; Director: Kym Longhi; Music Director and Arranger: Gary Ruschman; Artistic Associate and Production Manager: Jacob Miller; Set Design: Kristi Ternes; Costume Design: Teresa Mock and Rhiannon Fiskradaatz; Assistant Director: Jackson Calhoun; Assistant Production Manager: Akiko Ostlund; Production Chefs: Natalie Vandenburgh and Nora Rickey
Cast: Alex Adams-Leytes (Mr. Stan Ford), Maya Avila (Nettie Ford, ensemble), Jackson Calhoun (ensemble), Joni Griffith (Sandy Quickly), Anna Hashizume (Mrs. Arlene Page), Leif Hove (Doug Christiansen, ensemble), Alia Jeraj (ensemble), Naomi Karstad (Mrs. Judy Ford), Jacob Miller (Chuckie Ford), Nick Miller (Dr. John Falstaff), Akiko Ostlund (ensemble), Jesse Pollock-Foote (ensemble) and Nora Rickey (Mr. Kermit Page, ensemble).