High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Gaiety from the Eastern Bloc

So, we got screwed out of our Aida tickets (urge to kill. rising.), but Lyric was able to exchange our Cunning Little Vixen for last night. In every season, there's the opera that makes you do the official gesture of Team Turtleneck. With the exception of the underwhelming Susannah (which still had Ben Heppern and Daniel Cangelosi going for it, every season, the "enh" opera has been enjoyable, all things considered, and Vixen far exceeded expectations.

Lyric seems to be muckle aquent with Bel Canto snobs and began from a defensive position in its literature on the opera. The first line of the snooty patooty essay in the program was something along the lines of: "Many vulgar meanyheads persist in the total erroneous believe that Vixen is based on a comic book. To say that it is based on an illustrated, serialized novel is more accurate." Having no defense for its having been written in 1924, in Czech, the essayist quickly passed over these points.

Structurally, it's nothing like the opera that I buy the season tickets for. In fact, it bucked the conventions of time, space, and flow much more than anything I've yet seen. Musically, it was mercifully not in-your-face atonal modern stuff (which has its place, just not for 2 hours straight). In fact, the music taken by itself and the vocal parts taken by themselves were quite listenable, but at times, they seemed to pay one another no never mind. But as I said to L, unless they'd been running their fingernails over a blackboard for 2 hours straight, I'd have stayed for the sets and costumes.

Both were astonishingly good. So good they almost made up for the direly-in-need-of-lithium Don Giovanni set design (I note that David Zinn is credited with set and costumes for Santa Fe's Don, which is almost enough to drive me into the desert). As the curtain rose, a two-piece flat was used to mask the bulk of the stage. The piece stood about 2/3 the height of the proscenium, and it was covered with the most incredible sunflowers. The bottom had a row of smaller, free-standing blossoms, and the illusion of depth was helped out by the addition of three-dimensional petals higher up, but the work was so well done, it was difficult to distinguish the applique from the painting.

As these pieces separated and were rolled into the wings, the equally gorgeous rest of the set was revealed. The rear and sides consisted of a curved wall taller than the proscenium, so that the set appeared completely circular from the house. Much of the back wall was wooden slats, and the sides were yet more sunflower forests, with rafters extending from them up out of the frame of the proscenium.

Most of the floor was a substantial revolve, with various steamer trunks and vintage suitcases scattered around and piled up on it. These were a staple throughout the show, acting as creative seating, perches, makeshift ladders, or a little magical flair. Some were filled with costume pieces, other with pop-up flowers, tying together the whole forest-meets-attic theme.

The interior spaces consisted of the dilapidated, listing shack representing the forester's house and double-sided wardrobe the represented the tavern on one side and had gossiping birds perching in the top on the other. These were rolled on and off by cast members without interrupting the music or action, in keeping with the flowing of one season into another.

As an entire generation recovering from the sins of Sid & Marty Croft can tell you, representing anthropomorphic animals in a live-action context usually makes the baby Jesus cry. Not so here. The four solo dancers seemed to be the point of departure for the rest of the animal costuming. Given that the composer wrote large stretches of music without vocal lines in keeping with the whole "turn turn turn" theme, these four had numerous mini-ballets together, so their costumes needed to work together, yet not be monotonous when each appeared with his family or partner.

Two were dragonfly-like insects, one deep teal, the other a dark dusty rose. They wore sharply tailored tailored suits with hair and face dyed to match the fabric, with wings being the only costume nod to their place in the Linnaen hierarchy. Their partners had tea-length taffeta shirtwaists with ample crinolineage dyed-to-match pearls and pumps.

Of the other main soloists, the rabbits were the most "naturalistic." Rabbit dad had overalls of white fur (with stuffing for that robust "hoppy leg" appearance) and a headband for the requisite ears. The numerous members of his little family each had a different shirt on underneath their overalls. And for definitive proof that squirrels are evil and every well-ordered mind recognizes this and acts accordingly, the squirrel family had hats giving them tiny, flat ears, and big bushy tails, and were otherwise dressed in clothing that could have been off-the-rack from Old Navy: Courduroys, some of those heinous, brightly colored ski sweaters, and big fuzzy faux-Ugg boots.

Other notable woodland families included the frogs, all played by young boys in wet suits with green vests and gigantic flippers. Their games of leapfrog were a background staple, providing frequent opportunities for visual comedy as another animal would break into it, leaping the wrong way and sending them tumbling into a heap of waving flippers.

The Vixen's progression from adorable russet overalls with a striped shirt underneath to a tiered chiffon skirt and blouse was a nice way of taking her through the life cycle, and the reappearance of her early costume on her daughter was touching. The fox's block plaid Big Suit in loud oranges and browns worked really well, too.

But costume and concept-wise, nothing could top the poultry. Early on, for reasons known only to himself, the forester captures the vixen and brings her to his home. He is then SHOCKED, SHOCKED I tell you, to find that the Vixen is intent on harassing the chickens.

The six hens in supporting roles had white blouses with peter pan collars and knee-length skirts with huge crinolines underneath. The crested hen wore a marabou-trimmed bed jacket and skirt. Each had fire-engine red "naturally curly hair" wigs and (the most brilliant touch of all) saddle shoes in violent yellow. Each pushed on to stage her own girly dressing table with ornately scrolled mirrors. The rooster was the perfect compliment in a white satin Buddy Holly suit and a giant red pompador.

If the idea of a live-action Chicken Run strikes fear into your heart, I am here to bring you a message of hope. Everything was exactly right---the music, the pajama party energy, the rhythmic opening and closing of the drawers grounding the frenetic anarchy of the hens with a hint of industrial foreshadowing---just perfect. The choreography of this scene was just sublime. In spite of the visual and physical domination of the hens, the Vixen was never lost, as she wove among them, admonishing them for their subservience to the rooster, and ultimately boppin' 'em on the head when they wouldn't see reason. The ending tableau of hens sprawled over the tops of their dressing tables and littering the floor gets my vote for funniest carnage ever.

Vocally, I'm not sure this gives anyone a clear idea of what the performers can do, save Jean-Philippe LaFont as the forester. I don't think any baritone could complain about the role, and LaFont's John Goodman physique and voice were both perfect. Dina Kuznetsova as The Vixen had a pleasant voice and it was no surprise that she's known for her Pamina, though she didn't hold a candle to the Pamina we saw a few years back. We had a replacement Fox who was an excellent actress, but the vocal role is not much to write home about. I always like to hear Lauren McNeese, and she was a highly amusing puppy dog. I can't think of any individual performance that was weak, although the children's voices completely failed to carry over the music, but that's a hazard in any show.

All in all, a highly enjoyable couple of hours from Czechoslovakia

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