Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera

Composer Elizabeth Swados’ latest piece, Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera, is a riveting production that tells the story of one person’s tragic life, surrounded by the larger forces of society which alternately neglect, celebrate and crush the individual. While the core tale is sad, the work is not depressing because of Swados’ skillful use of operatic elements and absurdism to both draw in and distance the audience. It is at the Flea Theater in Tribeca through March 28 and should not be missed.

Borrowing from the tale of the notorious feral “wild child” who appeared in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1828, Swados has been working on this piece for more than a decade. Preston Martin gives a powerful performance as Kaspar, who was stolen from his noble mother as an infant so that another child would one day be able to rule in his place. The work opens as Kaspar, having lived the first dozen years of his life in a dungeon never learning how to speak or be human, is set free. The arc of the piece covers Kaspar’s troubled, highly publicized ascent into civilization through his assassination in 1833, at the age of 19, and the mystery surrounding his heritage — rumored to have been switched at birth, he was perhaps the true heir to the throne of Baden.

Supporting Martin in this world premiere production are 19 members of The Bats: Adrienne Deekman, Jennifer FouchĂ©, Beth Griffith, Nicolas Greco, Joseph Dale Harris, Arlo Hill, Michael Hopewell, Amy Jackson, Erica Livingston, Chad Lindsey, Vella Lovell, Kelly McCormack, Colin Mew, Jason Najjoum, Eliza Poehlman, Hannah Shankman, Marshall York and Carly Zien. They do an extraordinary job of capturing the world into which Kaspar is released. Swados’ staging has them swirling around Kaspar as a grotesque mob, curious scientists or members of society. This creates a feeling of movement that surrounds Kaspar for much of the show. He is the pawn and they are the forces that control his fate.

“The fickleness of society is something I have always been very interested in and a great deal of my career has been dedicated to documenting the abuse and nurturing of children who are unusually innocent and lost,” Swados writes in a program note.

She says Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” and Peter Handke’s play on the subject were informative, “but my vision is entirely musical and reaches much more into the absurd,” she writes. “I have spent much time trying to create an opera and libretto that reflects what it would be like to be a prisoner with no one in sight for 10 to 12 years, and then to come into a chaotic, sometimes loving, sometimes corrupt universe.”

The music is compelling, both in the large choral numbers, which with the movement of the actors flow fluidly one from the other, and the solos; Eliza Poehlman as Kaspar’s mother is especially moving as she sings about her lost child. Kaspar remains at the center, looking particularly innocent and vulnerable with the help of white face makeup, red lipstick and lots of black eyeliner to make his eyes look large and scared.

Erin Courtney contributed to the book and lyrics. The company also includes: Kris Kukul (musical director), Mimi Quillin (movement director), Jeremy Bloom (assistant director), Carrie Dell Furay (stage manager), Kara Kaufman (assistant stage manager), Jeanette Yew (lighting designer), Normandy Sherwood (costume designer), John McDermott (set designer), and Sam Goldman (sound designer).

Tickets for Kaspar Hauser are $25 and are available at https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/637795. Visit www.theflea.org for more information on KASPAR and the Flea Theater.

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