This third revival of their 1984 "King Stag", a fantasy by 18th century Italian playwright, Count Carlo Gozzi which uses his vision of Commedia Dell'Arte "masks" as characters, is perhaps Harvard's American Repertory Theatre's most ambitious road trip. This production is about to embark on a 60 city two-year tour, starting with a reported $100,000 recreation of the original costumes, masks, and puppets. The leading roles originated by Diane D'Aquila (Angela) and Thomas Derrah (King Deramo) are being taken by Sarah Howe and Jay Boyer, recent A.R.T. Institute graduates, as are most of the cast. Actor/director Derrah, a longtime member of the company, has coached the cast to help maintain Julie Taymor's original movement style, a combination of French LoCoq-based mime and Indonesian dance. The original stage-manager, Abbie Katz, has faithfully followed her book and taught the newbies all the nuances of the show. The results are still as visually stunning and still as devoid of meaning.
Andrei Serban's productions for the A.R.T., beginning with "Sgnarelle", his take on Moliere, have always explored the limits of theatricality. In "King Stag", one of Taymor's earliest sustained successes in total design, Serban sought a degree of stylization which renders an already feeble fable an exercise in ingenuity. Western theatre no longer has a rich gestural tradition, consequently, the movement vocabulary devised by Taymor is more effective in conjunction with the puppets than between live "masked" characters, whose gestures make their lines superfluous or vice versa. Moreover, the physical constraints of some of the costumes, for example on Dmetrius Conley-Williams as the villain Tartaglia, make a consistent style difficult.
The costumes and masks are striking at first sight, but their limitations, especially Tartaglia's yellow bat wings become clear. Sean Runnette as the magician, Durandarte, who turns into a green parrot is inexplicably costumed in white with sleeves left over from the Chinese opera. His lines, as "magus ex machina", is also presented mostly as recitative, which certainly distances him from the action. Several cast members could also use better fitting masks; their voices, notably William Church as Pantalone, become muffled at times.
Of the comic routines between minor characters, those involving those involving Douglas Goodenough as Brighella, the King's valet and Sophia Fox-Long as his sister, Smeraldina, intent on marrying the king are the most successful. Smeraldina's interaction with multi-percussionist, Russ Gold, is a welcome break. Gold handles Elliott Goldenthal's score, backed up by a recording or two, with aplomb.
Michael H. Yeargan's original set has been slightly simplified for touring and has Jennifer Tipton's lighting, with some loss of subtlety. Three shadow screens have been reduced to one and the original thrust staging of the action in now strictly head-on, which flattens the movement. The billboard-sized laughing statue is still a bit too big, so that its moving parts (mouth, eyes, eyebrows) are out of scale with the performers. The kite-birds, including the magic parrot, the flying bear featured in much of the publicity and the pair of translucent stags are marvelous puppets and their young handlers, Mark Fortin, Maura Nolan Henry, Todd Thomas Peters, Jeremy Proctor, Naeemah A. White-Peppers, (the Blue People) get a lot out of them. But the only puppet central to the action is a rod-operated Western "bunraku" figure, which still steals the show.
The biggest disappointment is Gozzi's fable. One assumes the King is supposed to learn something from the tortured action, which revolves around the same wedding problem as "Turandot" (which almost makes sense as a opera), plus betrayal as found in "The Serpent Woman" (also done at the A.R.T. a while back with Cherry Jones) But the ending is abrupt and arbitrary, for no reason. All the elements for a final reversal are available; but Durandarte steps in, puts everything right, and the villain dies of remorse or dispepsia, it matters not which, especially after the magus announces that he intends to pursue medicine from then on. When the A.R.T. began searching for a new commedia back at Yale, it was assumed that something more substantial would arise. The world is still waiting.
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