Open: 02/13/09- Close: 03/28/09
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Shari Perkins
Ryan Jensen ©2014 Preston Martin as Kaspar Hauser
Ever since The Epic of Gilgamesh's ill-fated Enkidu, foundlings and feral children have formed a common trope in literature; through the eyes of these untouched creatures, we see both the wonder and the corruption of human society. It's no wonder that when a teenage boy -- hardly able to speak -- appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, claiming to have been raised in a dark cell without any human contact, the German public was enthralled. In the years since his death, Kaspar Hauser's story has been retold in plays, films, and songs.
In Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera, Elizabeth Swados juxtaposes Kaspar's purity against the corruption of the political elite, who -- threatened by rumors of his royal birth -- decide to destroy him. The highly satisfactory first act of the opera is concerned with the education of Kaspar, who is ripped from his dungeon and cast into the blinding sunlight, then taught how to understand his newly discovered world. The less compelling second act portrays Kaspar's destruction at the hands of his enemies. It's regrettable that Kaspar -- unlike Charlie in Flowers for Algernon -- never reaches a level of self-awareness which would allow him to comprehend his own fall from grace, which returns him symbolically -- if not literally -- to the darkened cell he emerged from at the beginning of the show. In the end, Swados is less interested in Kaspar's own story than she is in the reaction of the chorus: the impressionable youth is a mirror for a fickle society, which "looked beyond him and saw what [they] chose to see."
Ryan Jensen ©2014 Marshall York, Preston Martin, Carly Zien
If the book by Swados and Erin Courtney is not quite perfect, the production is superb. Swados' music is attractive and beautifully sung by the Bats; especially lovely moments include Kaspar's first glimpse of the stars and a poignant second act duet with his tutor, "You've Grown." The band does justice to Swados' score without overwhelming the voices of the actors. Swados and movement director Mimi Quillin have crafted a show which looks good and moves well -- in a saucy, Cabaret-kind-of-way.
Amy Jackson as Daumer's Mother commands particular attention as the opera's main voice of reason, while the snarling Beth Griffith and creepy Marshall York are appropriately villainous as Louisa and Lord Stanhope. The heart of the production, however, is Preston Martin in the title role: the blond, angelic-looking actor plays Kaspar with complete conviction and a fascinating intensity. The scene in which Kaspar first sees the stars in a night sky and tries to snatch them from the heavens is particularly haunting. Who hasn't -- long ago -- longed to reach out and grab the stars?
Ryan Jensen ©2014 . the Ensemble
The design elements of the production conjure the opera's dark-yet-fantastical world. With their pale white makeup and rouged cheeks, the cast looks like they stepped out of The Threepenny Opera; Normandy Sherwood's bright and varied costumes help the large ensemble take on a slew of colorful, strangely threatening characters. John McDermott's flexible wide and shallow set -- constructed from rough-hewed wooden boards, platforms, traveling stair units, and hidden doorways -- proves versatile. A little help from lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew easily transforms the space from dungeon to castle tower to marketplace: the creative team accomplishes a lot with very little.
The greatest flaw of this show is that -- thanks to the authors' determination to use Kaspar as society's mirror -- the title character gets forgotten. As social commentary, Kaspar Hauser falls short, turning to clichés about the fickle public and the oppressiveness of orthodox religion. Nevertheless, Swados' production is highly entertaining, beautifully performed, and well worth the price of admission.
Flea Theater Mainstage : 41 White Street