Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Convent of Pleasure
Hence, Mixed Precipitation brings us The Odyssey, the love child spawned by melding d'Ulisse, a 17th century opera based on Homer's epic tale by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, with a raft of jaunty songs by none other than Dolly Parton. The selections from Monteverdi's work are presented in the original Italian, as short excerpts rather than lengthy arias or duets, which works out well to keep the sprawling narrative moving along. And no worries if you don't know Italian, abridged translations are provided on cleverly revealed scarves, fans, and other surfaces.
The Odyssey is divided up into three episodes. The first is subtitled "Penelope and the Carnival of Menace," depicting the suitors who attempt to win over Penelope during her twenty years of waiting for the return of her husband, Odysseus, who left to become the hero of the Trojan War, and ends up being gone for twenty years. As is Mixed Precipitation's practice, some characters are depicted as puppets, in this case the suitors, who are caricatures of burly cowboys. In fact, the entire productioncostumes, props, and vocal inflectionsseems modeled after a scene from "Hee Haw" as it would appear in Mad magazine. Rhiannon Fiskradatz designed costumes for the people on stage and Eleanor Schanelic is credited with puppet costume design; both had their imagination in overdrive.
Episode two, subtitled "The Voyage of Ulysses," puts the hero in the spotlight after he is caught in the crosshairs of the struggle between Neptune, God of the Sea, and Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, with the result being that after ten years of fighting the Trojans, his ship is set on a careening course that takes him another ten years to return to Ithaca. Ulysses, in this episode, is portrayed by another puppet as he encounters such perils as the one-eyed monster Polyphemus (vast puppet that requires two handlers) and the enchantress Circe.
In "Telemaco Fights Back," the third episode, the infant son Odysseus left behind is now a twenty-year-old man, resolved to eject the suitors who persist in tormenting Penelope. Odysseus at last arrives home, but in disguise, and joins forces with his son to bring his journey and Penelope's suffering full circle. In this episode, Odysseus is seen as a human actor to be on par with his son and his wife, to reestablish himself as the rightful ruler of Ithaca.
The cast and crew of this Pickup Truck Opera seem to be having a ball while remaining attentive to the details of the narrative and the vocal demands of the Monteverdi pieces. The band sets the stage with a pre-show medley of Dolly Parton tunes not used in the show, including a sing-along "Jolene." Co-directors Scotty Reynolds and Jacob Jäc" Miller must have a bottomless well of imagination working, with no lighting and little in the way of scenery to create wonderfully witty images, such as the bouncing up and down of Ulysses and his crew upon the high seas, and their deadly encounter with the whirlpooling Charybdis. The book, crafted by Reynolds and Miller in collaboration with the entire company, is an amalgamation of expository passages and comic turns ranging from high to low brow, with scant attention to character development or inner life.
No matter, for whether a Picnic of Pickup Operetta, the heart of these summer treats has always been the music. And here, a small but plucky band manages to do right by the wide range of material, from early Italian opera to the sounds of Nashville. Monteverdi's opera premiered in 1640 and was considered a bridge between Renaissance and baroque periods, while Dolly's songs have a timeless quality yet always feel fresh as a daisy. Music director Gary Ruschman makes the disparate pieces feel at home together and provides a steady core on guitar. Banjo player Sarina Partridge adds vibrant energy to the music and, as a bonus, teaches and leads the audience an original song during the second and third episode scene change.
Joni Griffith's violin provides a subdued warmth, while she springs into life taking on the roles of Circea mythic Greek temptress as she might appear in Dollywood, under a ridiculous blonde big-hair wigas well as giving comical life to the bit parts of Nestor and Menelaus. Jason Kornelis creates rich tones on cello, which become a sprightly bass when called for, and also steps forward to portray Telemaco, yearning for his absent father and to prove his own manhood against his mother's invasive suitors.
Momoko Tanno brings a beautiful soprano to the role of Penelope, perfectly suited for the operatic pieces, while delivering great renditions of Parton's "Will He Be Waiting for Me," "Your Old Handyman" and "What Will Baby Be," and she displays comic chops in her saucy dispatch of the suitors. Tanno brings fire to her portrayal of Minerva, dispensing wisdom in the midst of turmoil in "lo vidi per vendetta incenerisi Troja."
The puppet depiction of Ulysses in episode two is humorously handled by Jacob Miller, who puts a jumpiness into the hero's movements more akin to Popeye the sailor than a Greek hero, and brings joy. As the human Ulysses who reclaims his place in the palace of Ithaca, Rudolpho Nieto, familiar to audiences from roles with Theatre Latté Da and Minnesota Opera, brings a sense of gravitas and a beautifully toned bass-baritone voice to the Monteverdi, and switches off with surprising ease to the country-western tunes. Nieto also scores earlier on Neptune in "Superbo é l'huom ed é del duo peccato," vowing vengeance upon Ulysses for murdering his son, Polyphemus.
Past Picnic/Pickup Operettas have tied more clearly to a specific satiric target, usually associated with the national political scene. This year's addition seems less fixed on a solitary target and more inclined to commiserate with all of us feeling like so much of the past year or two has been one trial after anothermuch as Odysseus faces in his travels. A line near the end sums it up well, calling this ol' world a "fixer-upper", sounding like it comes straight from the mouth of Dolly Parton herself. Who knows, perhaps back in 1640 Monteverdi would have said the same thing.
The Odyssey runs through September 12, 2021, at varied locations as a Pickup Truck Operetta by Mixed Precipitation. All performance sites are outdoors. Donation of $10.00 - $20.00 is suggested. For more on performance dates, locations and reservations, please visit mixedprecipitation.org.
Music: Claudio Monteverdi and Dolly Parton; Libretto: Giacomo Badoaro; Music and Libretto adopted by: Scotty Reynolds and Gary Ruschman, with contributions from the cast and creative crew; Director: Scotty Reynolds and Jacob "Jäc" Miller; Music Director : Gary Ruschman; Choreography: Jacob (J?c) Miller; Set, Prop and Puppet Design: Duane Tougas; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Puppet Costume Design: Eleanor Schanelic; Puppet Movement Coach: Masa Kawahara.
Cast: Loki Embryn Graham (at select performances: suitor of Penelope, Puppet Ulysses), Joni Griffith (violin, sailor with Ulysses, Circe, King Nestor of Pylos, King Menelaus of Sparta), Jason Kornelis (cello, Polyphemus, Telemaco), Etta Meyer (servant to Penelope, sailor with Ulysses), Sova Meyer (servant to Penelope, sailor with Ulysses), Jacob Miller (suitor of Penelope, puppet Ulysses), Akane Niemi (servant to Penelope), Audrey Niemi (servant to Penelope), Rudolpho Nieto (suitor of Penelope, Neptune, Polyphemus, human Ulysses), Sarina Partridge (banjo), Gary Ruschman (guitar), Momoko Tanno (Penelope, Minerva, Helen of Troy).