nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
February 25, 2009
In 1828, a mysterious teenage boy in rags was discovered in the Nuremberg town square. Repeating the same sentence over and over again—"I would like to be a ryder, like my father was before me"—he seemed as though he'd never encountered civilization before. Then they found a note in his pocket explaining that he hadn't—he'd been locked in a basement his entire life. He is adopted and adored by the world, educated and "civilized," only to be mysteriously murdered. It's as fascinating as true stories come, and over the years has inspired several bold artistic reactions, including playwright Peter Handke and filmmakers Werner Herzog and Francois Truffaut. We can now add one more to the list, Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney's exhilarating new music-theatre piece Kaspar Hauser (a foundling's opera), now playing at The Flea Theatre.
While technically the label of opera is accurate (it is sung-through with no dialogue), Kaspar certainly doesn't sound like one. Its lush and punchy score plays like the bastard child of Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim at his artsiest, and gives equal weight to the words as it does to the music. In its brisk 90 minutes, the story bulldozes forward like a Victorian soap opera, never pausing for introspection in the manner of Opera—or for that matter, like previous retellings of the Kaspar story.
Whatever you may choose to call it, what's certain is the play packs quite a visceral punch. Swados proves adept at directing her own material, and uses the Flea's shallow playing space to its fullest potential. She has also created—along with movement director Mimi Quillin—a slew of impressively complex ensemble scenes depicting a gossip-hungry German society, which The Bats (the Flea's resident acting ensemble) attack with ferocious glee. By now, the energy and dedication of the famously quirky young Bats should be surprising to no one. What does surprise is their powerful singing, as they display vocal chops you simply don't expect to find downtown. The musical climaxes, with 19 voices blaring at you at point blank range, are enough to make your hair whoosh back.
As much emphasis as the creators have placed on the ensemble, the onus naturally falls on Kaspar to carry the piece, and Preston Martin delivers with aplomb. He's a fine singer who's not afraid to sound ugly, and his voice evolves in quality as his character acquires the knowledge and manners imposed on him by society.
Kaspar Hauser can, at times, be a bit overwhelming, moving forward with so much relentless verve that we never really feel Kaspar's disconcerting isolation. But Swados and Courtney seem less interested in probing his mind than the other interpreters of this story before them, and more concerned with criticizing the society that manipulates and eventually destroys him. It's a take that's less heady, but it's certainly no less valid.
Ten years in the making, Kaspar Hauser is structurally seamless and often very moving. It may be too dark for the Broadway crowd and not operatic enough for the Opera crowd, but for those who don't care about genre anyway, your ship has come in.