My younger brother, Pat, is an Actor. That's a capital A - he's performed on a variety of stages in the Chicago theater scene, playing a broad range of roles and building up his dramatic career. He's also an awesome guy, and since half a continent separates us, I don't get to see him nearly as often as I would like.
Late last year, he told me about this nifty, crazy project he was working on - a group of actors were going to try and adapt The Ring Cycle for the stage. In their initial test run, he played Alberich the villainous dwarf, among other roles. The operas are vast, sprawling things, with a much larger number of characters than available actors, so everyone got to play many roles.
The play was picked up, the roles were re-jiggered, and Pat was cast in the main show. It would combine all 4 operas. In most productions, each individual opera takes about 4 hours to perform (depending on the speed of the conductor), so there were about 16 hours of source material. That's with singing, though. The Ring Cycle's theatrical adaptation kept all of the original story and plot, updated the language, set it in English rather than Italian, and managed to whittle the running time down to a lean six hours.
I thought it sounded amazing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was a Really Big Deal. If I lived in Chicago I'd go to see all of Pat's plays; as it is I only get to see a few, but I knew that this would be worth making a special trip. I coordinated with the rest of my family to figure out when the best time would be to visit, then made arrangements to do it.
I have never heard any of the operas, and had no prior experience of The Ring Cycle. Pretty much all of my knowledge about the opera comes from second-source commentary describing how The Ring Cycle is similar to and different from The Lord of the Rings. That, and the random bits and pieces that one picks up from pop culture: Valkyries, Germanic gods, dwarfs. It felt cool to step into such an epic work with so much history and have such a blank slate.
The performance was, in a word, stunning. For starters, it did an amazing job at capturing a lot of the grandeur that one would expect from an opera, even though we were in a fairly small space and they didn't have the Metropolitan Opera's budget to work with. They didn't have elaborate painted backgrounds, crowds of extras, giant mechanical mystical creatures. Instead, they cleverly used simple techniques to convey the magical setting of the play - this required a bit more active participation on the part of the viewer, but we all readily gave it, and the overall result was much more effective than would have been produced with painted props.
At the very start of the play, we are introduced to the Rhinemaidens. Now, ALL of the actors in this play were great, but the three ladies who played the Rhinemaidens and, later, the birds, were astonishing: not only actors, but also acrobats and singers as well. Large rolls of blue fabric descended from the ceiling, and the maidens "swam" up and down them, seeming to move horizontally as well as vertically. When Alberich crept onstage, they teased and toyed with him; one would hang upside down and stretch a hand out toward him, only to pull herself up and out of the way when he lunged. It was pretty incredible three-dimensional staging.
The Giants are also particularly well done. Two broad-shouldered gentlemen play Fafner and... the other one, whose name currently escapes me. When they come on stage, they pull out some lights that project their shadows onto the walls. Thereafter, the other actors interact with the shadows, who loom giant-sized above them. That was a neat trick. Even besides the shadows, though, the actors are great at moving and acting like giants. Every motion they make seems to have a great weight behind it, and you constantly get an impression of barely restrained power.
A similar technique is used to great effect in "Siegfried" with the dragon. Several actors bring the dragon to life, with two operating its enormous head and several others operating its tail. Siegried leaps and runs from one end of the stage to the other, with his shadow doing battle with the much larger shadow of the dragon. Awesome stuff, and I'm impressed by all the pieces that The Building Stage needed to put together in order to pull this off.
There was almost no singing in the production, but the three ladies did sing a little about the Rhinegold. For music, they had a cool little live band on stage, tucked away in a sort of mini orchestra pit towards the back. They generally did the transitions between scenes, only occasionally providing cues to the current action. I later learned that the drummer had written the adaptation, which is pretty amazing. Since I'm not familiar with the original operas, I probably didn't pick up on most of the adaptations, but it was pretty hard to miss the theme for Flight of the Valkyries. It was cool and chilling to hear, a slower and almost meditative rumination on electric guitar.
I was delighted to find that the plot, which certainly complex, was eminently follow-able in this medium. It's hard to keep all the characters and plotlines and feuds in your head at the same time, but I never felt lost; for any particular thing which is happening onstage, you can easily work backwards to connect it with what we've seen before. The plot, incidentally, is pretty amazing. It's also really bleak. Throughout the first two acts/operas, not a single character is really likeable. The gods are arrogant and haughty; Alberich is avaricious and power-mad; the Rhinemaidens are teases; the giants are dull and greedy; Siegmund is hot-tempered (not to mention incestuous); and so on.
I pretty quickly worked out that German gods are more or less the same as Norse gods. I found myself thinking often of American Gods, which actually serves as a useful crutch for a few of the major characters. Wotan was clearly Odin, down to the spear. Loge was Loki, and making that connection helped me understand that character much more. It's a bit of a shame that Loge only appears in the first part. He's such an interesting character, and he ends his last scene with a teasing comment about his plots for the future. I suspect that the original audience, steeped in the mythology, would have recognized Loge's fated participation in Ragnarok (or whatever they call it in Germany) and seen his hand behind the later events of the opera, even if he does not appear in flesh to move it along.
Oh, costumes! They were a bit odd at first, but once I got it I loved them. The dress is more or less modern, not medieval, and is highly class-conscious. The gods are all dressed up in preppy clothes: stylish slacks, attractive haircuts for the women, expensive-looking shirts for the gents. When Donner (who I think might be Thor?) carries his hammer, it sometimes feels like a Lacrosse stick. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Nibelheim (dwarfs) are blue-collar, wearing heavy aprons, with matted hair and heavy boots. And Loge - as one of the gods, he is expensively dressed, but as the trickster half-mortal outsider, he doesn't adapt the fashions of his fully-immortal counterparts; he has a cool hat, and colorful trousers, and a bearing all his own, at once confident and wary. (This is as good a point as any to mention that Loge is actually played by a woman, which is yet another bit of brilliant casting.)
We finally get some more sympathetic characters in the third act. Well, actually a bit before then: Brunhilde shows up near the end of the second act, and earns our respect by defying Wotan in order to help save the gods from destruction. She is roundly punished. The third act brings back Brunhilde, and more immediately introduces us to Siegfried, the unquestioned hero of the piece. It's all very Germanic: he knows no fear, is a tireless warrior, perhaps not the brightest guy around but making up for it with his unwavering enthusiasm. He slays the dragon, wins the girl, and takes the Ring while remaining free of its curse; what more could a guy want?
Okay, so the Ring: I was actually surprised by just how similar Wagner's description of The Ring is to that of Tolkien. I'd somehow been under the impression that The Rhinegold Ring was more of a good object that was being fought over, while The One Ring was an object of pure evil. Actually, the Rhinegold ring is cursed, and drives people in much the same way as Sauron's ring. Alberich and Hogan and... the other dwarf whose name I forget all come across as pretty Gollum-like in their obsession with reclaiming the ring. (One of the only bits of the play that I didn't really care for was a "conversation" between Alberich and Hogan in the fourth act which seemed to have been lifted from Gollum's schizophrenic soliloquy in the movie version of The Two Towers.) Although, now that I think about it, the dwarfs want the Rhinegold ring because it will give them unlimited power over the world. In Lord of the Rings, someone like Gandalf or Aragon might have been able to use The One Ring for their own power, but almost anyone else would have simply come under the power of Sauron and become his slave. Alberich with his ring would have been a terror; Gollum with his ring would still be pathetic.
All that said, the overall feel that one gets about The Ring is quite similar in both works. It's something both desirable and feared, it promises wealth and power while carrying incredible danger, most people lust after it while a few wise people shun it, and only the very unusual (Tom Bombadil who cares not for The Ring, or Siegfried who knows no fear and knows not what the Ring promises) are free from its pull.
Even the very end resolution is very similar. Gollum grabs The Ring and falls into the flames. Hogan grabs The Ring and falls into the Rhine.
So, uh, Tolkien is a hack? Nope. Lord of the Rings was a point far long on his lifelong quest to create an English mythology. As a child he fell in love with the Northern mythos, from the Norse and the Germans, and was sad that the English had nothing equivalent. He didn't set out to make a copy, but was heavily influenced by the feel of that mythology. I'm a little surprised at how similar The Ring stuff is, but it isn't exactly the same, and you can make a really strong case that Tolkien's Catholic values subvert the pagan values in The Ring Cycle.
Wow, that was a digression. Back to the play:
Each of the individual four acts was around 70 minutes long. The Building Stage offered a 10 minute intermission between acts 1 and 2, and between acts 3 and 4. In between acts 2 and 3 was a forty-five-minute dinner break. We came prepared! I attended with my parents and sister, and we brought along a delicious spinach salad, a chicken fruit pasta salad, excellent rosemary bread. We were envied by all. For the piece de resistance, we feasted on homemade pecan pie. It was delightful. It was also great to chat a little with the actors, who passed through the stage and greeted people. By now I've met a few of Pat's associates from other plays, so it was really cool to recognize people and chat with them.
This is going to sound trite, but in terms of overall dramatic movement, The Ring Cycle is the exact opposite of a romantic comedy. Most rom-coms follow this general pattern: up, up, down, up. Boy meets girl, they build a relationship, some problem happens that drives them apart, then they resolve the problem and end the movie better than ever. The Ring Cycle is down, down, up, down. After the third act, the curse of The Ring catches up to people, Wotan's scheming falls apart, Alberich wreaks vengeance from beyond the grave. There's a lot of shouting and crying. Fortunately, the very, very end of the play ends on an upbeat note, or at least as upbeat as you can expect from a Germanic story.
In the days since seeing the play, I find that I'm regularly replaying it in my head, unpacking the scenes, remembering little flourishes that struck me as especially neat, even retracing the plot in my head to assure myself that I have everything straight. It's incredibly rich source material, and I can see why the operas have endured for over a century. Sadly, the play doesn't have that much longer of a run left, which is doubly unfortunate since they are now selling out their shows and people increasingly want to see it. I'm delighted that I got a chance to experience it, and proud of the whole crew for pulling off this audacious performance.