Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Hang onto your crowns! Long Beach Opera’s (LBO) 2020 season opens with a politically satiric, comic adaptation of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur, continuing at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre through next weekend. An explicit comment on our current president’s anti-immigrant stance, LBO’s King Arthur sends up the paranoia that blinds us to the human cost of turning away waves of people washing upon our shores.
Adapted by Director Andreas Mitisek and Culture Clash writers, this version of Purcell’s 17th-century semi-opera features Arthur King, a Fox News-watching asylum inmate who believes he must stop “shape-shifter” aliens with his superpowers. More fun cannot be had at an opera as comic books, superhero dolls, genre-bending video interviews, virtual-reality excursions and excellent operatic singing are layered together in a delicious, though politically biting, cake.
Completely inhabiting the delusional Arthur King is tenor Marc Molomot, whose uninhibited physical movement and soft, clownish presence elicit both laughter and sympathy. We see him combine slanted news commentary with his beloved comic books, adopting a superhero persona to defend against all those shape-shifters among us who would do us harm.
The person Arthur wants to protect the most is Nurse Gwen E. Veer (Jamie Chamberlin), the wonder woman who cares for him. Chamberlin unleashes not only an epic soprano voice but a sparkling comic sensibility as well. In one of four video interviews with the cast shown on a screen above the stage during the performance, Chamberlin talks about herself in character while sipping a Cosmopolitan, as funny and confident as any comedienne.
In the videos, the cast describe themselves as characters in the asylum but also opera singers, adding a meta quality to the performance. The cast also refers to the theatre– the institute is called the Camelot O’Neill– and Arthur searches the audience for shape-shifters at one point, breaking the fourth wall and putting us on the spot. Opera, asylum and real life are blurred together delightfully and disconcertingly, making us conscious of how unreal the current political climate often feels.
Further blurring reality and fantasy, Arthur and fellow inmate (and hugging buddy) Lance E. Lott (gentle countertenor Darryl Taylor) don virtual-reality headsets to blast off into outer space and vanquish the shape-shifters once and for all. Gloriously and hilariously, we see video of larger-than-life Marvel and DC Comics action figures fighting, projected onto a comic-book framed screen, echoing Norse gods such as Thor that appear in Purcell’s original King Arthur battles.
And visible behind the screen, juxtaposing the zany scenarios, we hear heavenly music by the 10-member, string-heavy Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, precisely led by Ilia Korol. Purcell’s lyrical compositions enhance our empathy for Arthur’s plight, increase our admiration of Nurse Gwen and even make Gwen’s lover and Arthur’s nemesis Doc Oswald (Cedric Berry)– who laments in his video that baritones are always operatic bad guys– a little less smarmy.
Mitisek notes that we currently have a “longing for heroes to protect us from invaders.” Through his exceptional acting and singing, Molomot helps us see that protection is all Arthur wants. But through metatheatrical staging that plays with our sense of reality, this production of King Arthur shows us what we might see if we took off our goggles and came down to earth.
Long Beach Opera’s King Arthur continues at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, on Saturday, Jan. 18 at 7:30pm and Sunday, Jan. 19 at 2:30pm. Tickets are $49-$150, with lower student and subscription prices. For tickets and information, call at (562) 470-7464 ext. 1 or visit Longbeachopera.org. There is a pre-opera talk one hour before each performance.