Review: The Wooster Group's 'La Didone' at REDCAT
From its inception, the operatic stage has welcomed the blending of such diverse art forms as music, drama, dance and visual design. But it’s safe to say that Francesco Cavalli, the 17th century Italian composer who led the development of opera as a public entertainment, never imagined that his gorgeous Baroque arias would one day be sung by a cast in space suits from a cheesy sci-fi thriller.
The Wooster Group, bless its co-founder and director Elizabeth LeCompte’s postmodern heart, is at it again. In “La Didone,” now at REDCAT, the company meshes Cavalli and Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s 1641 opera of the same title with — buckle up, everyone — “Terrore nello spazio,” the futuristic 1965 Italian horror movie better known here as “Planet of the Vampires.”
The resulting multimedia dream is one that I’m still trying to process (the Wooster Group’s technologically sculptured productions have a force field that protects them from glib interpretation). But I can tell you that when it was all over, I felt reluctant to return to the workaday world of normal ordered perception.
Which isn’t to say that this theatrical journey is a complete and utter bliss ride. Narrative dizziness leads to a few lulls that can’t be covered up by sensory overload, and then there’s the built-in frustration of having your attention splintered in multiple riddling directions. Brains beware: The production is like an exhausting cerebral spin class.
But what can you expect when you have three tales going on virtually simultaneously? First, there’s the rarely performed opera retelling (and boldly revising) the myth of Dido, Queen of Carthage (beautifully sung by Hai-Ting Chinn). She, of course, falls head over heels for Aeneas (the mellifluous John Young), a heroic refugee from defeated Troy looking to fulfill his destiny of being the progenitor of Rome.
Then there’s the film about human space travelers (reenacted by such Wooster Group virtuosos as Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, with help from their game opera cohorts). These intergalactic voyagers have been forced to land on a planet in which alien creatures are trying to take possession of their bodies and high-tail it to Earth before their planet’s sun goes black.
And finally, there’s the inimitable synthesis of these dual story lines — presented with the company’s customary flat-screen video monitors, rolling office furniture and computer symphony of blips and bleeps.
Accidental parallels between “La Didone” and “Planet of the Vampires” are wryly italicized, but what unites them is the spirit of dangerous adventure. Both Aeneas, who has stumbled upon a strange land with unfamiliar customs, and Dido, who has dropped through a romantic rabbit hole, are facing an uncertainty every bit as life-threatening as the one confronting the passengers of the two spaceships that have touched town on a lonely spot in the universe, which might be friendly but more likely spells the demise of the crews.
The sensationally frenzied production — featuring Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair’s sound design and video by Zbigniew Bzymek and Joby Emmons with Andrew Schneider — places spectators in a similarly confounding situation in which new modes of communication and methods of understanding must be learned on the fly. With so much to marvel at, we have no choice but to become explorers ourselves, which may prove vexing to those who think of theater as something to be intellectually consumed in a single swallow.
This is a piece that even if you already have a deep intimacy with the obscure opera and largely forgotten movie you’re still going to have to contend with the madness of supertitles from both works scrolling at the same time and the low volume of actors’ voices drawing you in as the high-tech din deflects your focus elsewhere. Repeated viewing will allow you to more fully appreciate the sexy fit of Antonia Belt’s astral costumes and the ingenious musical direction of Bruce Odland, which lends the Cavalli score an electric guitar kick. But the hyperactive aesthetic subverts any presumption of an assured foothold.
As you switch your focus near the end between Chinn’s ravishing handling of Dido’s seemingly suicidal aria and the movie’s apparent apocalyptic finale, you can’t help becoming giddily conscious of how your mind takes in and hierarchically arranges artistic data. “La Didone” insists that you break calcified habits.
Ensemble regulars may not reach the vertiginous theatrical heights of “House/Lights” or “The Hairy Ape," but what’s distinctive about this latest Wooster Group collage is the interweaving of opera, with its irresistible vocal purity, and the unconscious lure of B-movie suspense. I found the oddball match-up twistedly exhilarating in the way it both levels and preserves high and low distinctions — and I heartily recommend it to all fearless theatergoers as part of their annual neural-pathway tuneup.
Photo (Top): Hai-Ting Chinn. Photo (Bottom): Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times.