Richard Wagner’s dream of Total Theater—a sweeping synthesis of dance, music, spectacle, and poetry—didn’t come cheap. Bayreuth, the theater built expressly for his all-encompassing Ring Cycle, required not only the patronage of the insane King Ludwig but deutsche marks and dollars from Wagner societies around the world. Gesamtkunstwerk, the crunchy German word for the perfectly integrated masterpiece Wagner dreamed of, would seem to be beyond the budgets of most downtown companies. Yet, ironically, the term has had its American realization not in the luxury of Lincoln Center but in our Off-Broadway pocket stages. Where else but at Richard Foreman’s Ontological Theater or the Wooster Group’s Performing Garage has drama and design blended so seamlessly with symphonic sound? Perhaps not exactly what Wagner had in mind, but the break from shallow realism would certainly have tickled his mythic sensibility.
Target Margin, the still emerging heir to the Foreman-Wooster Group legacy, provides an opportunity for downtown artists to playfully investigate the influence of the big German W. “The Operatic Era Laboratory,” a shoestring though impressively curated event underway at the Lower East Side’s Flamboyan Theater, includes five productions by up-and-coming oddball auteurs, a staged reading of Charles Ludlum’s hilarious Der Ring Gott Farblonjet, and even a lecture exploring Hitler’s notorious fondness for The Ring. Though Wagner’s titanic aesthetic may have become gaudily packaged for fur-wrapped dilettantes of both sexes, his music-drama continues to exert a hold on the common folk drawn by the basic human need to experience something radically transcendent.
Of the two forays into Wagnermania I checked out by review time, the more promising is the Rattazzi Brothers’ multimedia Ring Cycle. Conceived and directed by Steven and James Rattazzi, the piece explores the opera’s cultural place in a futuristic era where a pill-dispensing corporation regulates mental health and advertisers are allowed direct entry into consumers’ brains. Antidepressants have rendered art a distant memory, with only the most commercial forms of creativity cracking through the muffled cheer. The sketchy setup revolves around the last living director (an uncharacteristically restrained Steven Rattazzi), who’s been brought out of retirement (i.e., given permission to stop his meds) by Big Brother to adapt Wagner’s four-part opera into a highbrow marketing tool. Clearly, some fascistic impulse is driving the campaign (video interviews with academics spell out the anti-Semitic aspects of The Ring), though the production drolly concentrates on the confrontation between our puny, popularizing sensibilities and a work whose breathtaking scale makes it seem a dinosaur of the imagination.
With James Rattazzi leading on electric guitar, Wagner’s crashing orchestrations are replaced by wedding-band versions of “Band of Gold” and the Pointer Sisters’ “Fire.” Meanwhile, high-flown recitative featuring warrior maidens, lusty giants, and baffled demigods (to say nothing of sibling lovers) is transformed into soap-opera banality. All the while, the aura of the original masterpiece haunts the proceedings. Though the Rattazzis’ wry informality (which devolves at times into looseness) shies away from explicit pronouncements, there’s the sci-fi suggestion that consumerism (both biotech and otherwise) is deadening our capacity to dream. The Ring may lend itself to totalitarian ends, but the relentlessness of Wagner’s creative vision suggests a world more free and daring than our own.
In Dead Tech, Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder is refracted through a Wooster Group aesthetic that combines moody music-drama with pieties from the literature of postmodern architecture. Conceived by Kristin Marting and Celise Kalke, the production choreographs the tale of Halvard Solness’s self-destructive yearning for artistic transcendence into a series of quizzically striking tableaux. A chicly futuristic chorus of two comments from the periphery, with sententious remarks like “A building extends the inner landscape into the air.” Though the scenes are gracefully arranged by Marting in the appropriately high-ceilinged Puritan Iron Foundry in DUMBO, the overall effect is flatter and more subdued than the alpine terror of Ibsen’s meticulously plotted poetic tragedy.
Unlike, say, Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, which redeploys Shakespeare’s masterpiece in imagistic ways that cut to the violent heart of 20th-century life, Dead Tech is far too reverent to its source to achieve autonomous expression. The aging Solness’s mysterious reunion with Hilda, the young woman for whom he once flirtatiously promised to build a castle in the sky, clearly lies at the core of the production. But instead of reformulating Ibsen’s dialectics (between tradition and innovation, creativity and destruction, the seen and the imaginary), Marting and Kalke merely annex on words of wisdom from pretentiously titled treatises like Manfred Hamm’s Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archeology of Tomorrow and Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. The parallels between Ibsen’s themes and modern architectural theory are never adequately developed, and thus a seamlessly woven Gesamtkunstwerk this ain’t.
Still, the production is nothing if not stylish—particularly when Todd Griffen’s hallucinatory score induces the cast to externalize their psychodramas into eddies of balletic movement. Dressed in floral prints and army boots, Daphne Gaines makes a murderously beautiful Hilda, though her portrait fails to shed light on her character’s preternatural hunt for the Master Builder’s soul. Younger than most Master Builders, Richard Toth manages nonetheless to capture the look of animal terror in Solness’s eyes, which registers that his artistic life (and therefore his mortal one) is drawing to an end.
Marting and her design team have created luminously spare stage pictures. But as visual élan takes precedence over interior clarification, Dead Tech remains earthbound even when it risks Wagner-worthy leaps into multidimensional theatrical space.