I attended the premiere of Scott Warrender and Jim Luigs’ original take on Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, “Das Barbecu,” in 1991. I don’t remember a single detail except that it was rollicking and a hit with audiences. The piece was reworked from a succinct one-act version to its current two acts over several years at places like Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., and Center Stage in Baltimore, making its way to New York and Off-Broadway in 1994. Now, this remarkable coupling of “grand opera and Grand Ole Opry,” to use stage director Stephen Terrell’s telling phrase, has returned to Seattle. It opened a 30-day run Thursday night at ACT.
“Barbecu” remains very, very funny not only from my seat, but, it would appear, from every other seat in the house. The audience was young. few of whom, I would suspect, have seen the “Ring.” That is part of the glory of “Barbecu”: One doesn’t have to know a single line of the tetralogy to appreciate the outrageous humor of the musical. It works on any level you want. That said, for someone with “Ring” experience — I have seen more than 40 performances of the cycle, throughout the United States and Europe — the work is even more amusing. Nothing gets lost along the way. It is enormous fun to see where the piece sticks to Wagner, like jelly to peanut butter, or rearranges chronology, eliminates characters, invents new ones and nearly ignores whole operas. Much is not explained, but it doesn’t seem to matter because there is so much to keep one amused.
Indeed, the musical is audacious in its willingness to do its own thing, even to the point of changing the ending. Siegfried is still murdered and Brunnhilde sets the world on fire, but one couple survives and, presumably, lives happily ever after. I doubt if Wagner would have laughed — he was not known for his sense of humor — but everyone else does.
According to David Brunelle’s excellent history of the creation of “Barbecu” in the program, the idea for a “theatrical companion” for the “Ring” began in the late 1980s, not long after Speight Jenkins arrived in Seattle to take over Seattle Opera as general director. He liked the idea of a theatrical piece that would be “filled with light-hearted, rustic fun” — Brunelle’s words — but parody was forbidden. In some ways, “Barbecu” is parody but only in a side view because it establishes itself so clearly on its own feet.
Wagner’s “Ring” stands in the ancient forests of German mythology. “Barbecu” stands in the contemporary world of Texas. How far apart can that be? It was Warrender’s idea to set the piece in Texas, a place native to Jenkins, Terrell and Luigs. This was not to be a Texas of any refinement or sophistication, but the kind of Texas people in the North are fond of mocking — the accent, the style, the manners. Of course, “Barbecu,” as all satires do, takes an expansive and extravagant approach. A lot of the piece comes in broad and loud strokes, but there are moments of tender lyricism that give balance to the whole.
Among the most striking elements of “Das Barbecu” is its sense of authenticity. The Texas, as outrageous and distorted as it is portrayed in song and dance and accent, seems real, in some fundamental way. Right at the start of of the two and one-half hour show, which goes by in a minute, one recognizes that we are in a place that is as unusual as it is hilarious. Although “Barbecu” has its own internal reason for doing what it does, there is no way to predict what direction the narrative will take us. For those who know the “Ring,” that is one of the great pleasures of “Barbecu”: its altering situations and characters wherever it chooses.
There is a kind of stately progress to Wagner’s great work. There is no stately progress to “Barbecu.” That is part of its charm. It moves quickly and sometimes without seeming purpose. Each musical number has its own separate virtue, be it designed for laughs or poignancy. All sorts of characters are virtually eliminated. Some are not even mentioned in dialogue, such as Mime and Hunding; Waltraute; Loge, Donner and Froh; Brunnhilde’s sisters, others only in passing. It was wise to ignore Siegmund and Sieglinde, the most human of all “Ring” characters, because their situation is so filled with unhappiness and lacking in potential humor. A few characters are invented wholesale, like Needa and Milam, although they play only minor roles. Huge segments of the cycle are almost completely ignored. How could that not be, since the “Ring” comprises about 15 hours of music over four nights? A good share of the musical occupies the territory of the final opera, “Gotterdammerung.” By the second song in Act I, for example, Siegfried and Brunnhilde, Gunther and Gutrune have already met. In Wagner, they don’t meet until the second act of “Gotterdammrung.” But there are plenty of flashbacks.
This is a very polished production in which everything works smoothly and nothing seems amiss or out-of-sorts. The pace is fast and timing is split-second. Terrell’s staging is expert. He knows what he wants to accomplish and how to get there. David Zinn’s unit set design and costumes deftly establish context with comic slap-dash. The wigs – often big and strident in color — deserve a mention of their own. Alex Berry’s lighting design is apt.
For all the characters in “Barbecu,” there are only five actors: Anne Allgood, Carter J. Davis, Jennifer Sue Johnson, Billie Wildrick and Richard Ziman. They are quite extraordinary, both in energy and talent. The articulation of various characters is often so acute, one is hard pressed to tell the difference, between, for instance, Davis as Siegfried and Davis as Alberich, or Allgood as Fricka and Allgood as Erda. The small pit band, led by Richard Gray, labored mightily under the stage.