This Isn’t a Powerpoint Presentation

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monsters-and-prodigies.jpgSometimes when you think you’ve seen it all at the theater, a sweet roll, perfectly aimed like a stealth missile, knocks you senseless. Thank goodness, I didn’t mean this literally, because the buns that the actors of Teatro de Ciertos HabitantantesMonsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati were pelting the audience with during a wacky, whacked-out foodfight at the performance on Friday night at the MCA Stage, hit my shoe instead of my forehead. But I might as well have been clobbered over the head by this heady, outrageously eccentric, undeniably informative, trainstopping hybrid of theater, opera, and an MFA lecture, the latest entry in an unforgettable Museum of Contemporary Art performance season. It is that good, and that memorable. And I am so thrilled that between the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill Festival, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s World Stage season, and the MCA Stage line-up, Chicago audiences have, since the fall of last year, had the opportunity to sample some of the best of the world’s theatrical offerings. This production, though, from the Mexico-City based theater company is quite a unique, one-of-a-kind experience – inventive and riveting, each artistic decision an essential contributor to communicating its themes and advancing its narrative structure.

In a nutshell, Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati basically recounts the phenomenon of surgically mutilated young boys who became celebrated opera stars in 17th and 18th century Italy. Claudio Valdes Kuri, the Artistic Director of Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes who also directs the production, calls the piece “a lecture”. I think that’s quite a modest description – man, if Monsters and Prodigies was a lecture, I’d be a seashell.  This is definitely not your absent-minded professor’s Powerpoint presentation.  It’s like opera theater dreamed up by David Lynch co-mingled with the Marx Brothers in a Saturday Night Live skit gone awry – erudite and articulate, yes; surreal too; edgy and bawdy at times; always with a modern feel; always walking a tightrope between the brows, high, middle, low. The story is narrated by the over-the-top Siamese twins Jean Ambroise Pare (played by Raul Roman and Gaston Yanes), a barber/surgeon, who performs the castration of young boys being prepared for a career in opera. They mince, they sashay, they dance, they perform slapstick, they mug, they come off like Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons if she were a lipstick lesbian, but they also comment on the action, move the story along, and provide invaluable pieces of information (such as those related to the sex lives of the castrati – yes, they confirm, even with the missing testicles, these men could, uhmmm, “perform” and were well-known for their sexual conquests). Kuri puts them in charge of a band of merry, memorably idiosyncratic characters: a half naked slave, who, if not grabbing his crotch, is slapped, body slammed, and thrown around like a beach ball by the rest of the cast; a centaur; a nerve-wracked composer; Il Virtuoso, the castrato himself, played by male soprano Javier Medina (who sings a couple of Handel and Gluck arias beautifully, almost supernaturally); and a real, live, white horse and his rider. Yep, a white horse. A white horse who dances a minuet with the castrati, the slave, and the Siamese twins, while the human actors narrate details around the rise of the castrati. Yep, I just wrote that sentence (This was one of my “I thought I’d seen it all, but clearly I haven’t” moments during the performance). And then there is the food fight between actors and audience. An older gentlemen stands up and starts haranguing the actors and telling them to go back to Mexico where they belong. I think the audience on Friday night was genuinely shocked, especially after the whole Goodman Strange Interlude encounter, which has hogged the Chicago theater blogs over the past two weeks- they hiss and boo, and are then pelted by bread and fruit by the actors onstage. Sensational and unexpected, I had to pick my jaw up from the floor, where it lay side-by-side with the dinner roll. By the way, food fights was a not-so-rare occurrence in operas during the Baroque period that the castrati performed in.

Which is why I think Kuri, his actors, who improvised much of the movement and the situations during a nine month rehearsal period, and his design team are so brilliant. They take historical information as well as elements of the Baroque opera period and style in which the castrati performed in, and mix them up in a mind-bending cocktail of theatricality. The lighting design is reminiscent of the murky, candle-lit ambience of the period. The costumes are faithful to the period but also flamboyantly eye-candy. The acting is stylized and theatrical, but also has a lot of physical comedy and dance movement incorporated into it. And there’s a lot of interesting and intriguing themes that you keep on thinking about even after the performance has ended: the moral questions raised by mutilation to create beauty and art; the nature of sacrifice in pursuing one’s artistic craft; the socio-political-economic-religious context that gives rise to cultural phenomenons; the shifting tides and winds and arbitrary nature of cultural taste (brought very much home by the last scene with Medina in a single hazy yellow spotlight sobbing as a recording of Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato, singing “Ave Maria” is played in the theater, a grim reminder that what is culturally embraced today can be the oddity tomorrow). Monsters and Prodigies maybe jaw-droppingly over the top, and is a hell of a unique time at the theater, but it also, more importantly, like all good theater, makes the audience reflect long after the house lights have dimmed.  Bravo to the MCA for bringing us this wonderful, impactful piece of theater (as one of my fellow arts and culture mavens told me, the MCA Stage is our version of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the leading presenter of cutting-edge, world-class performance in New York, and I gotta say, I agree with him).

Monsters and Prodigies:  The History of the Castrati has two more performances – Saturday, March 21 at 7:30 and Sunday, March 22 at 3 pm.  I heard tickets are selling out fast, another testament to the Chicago audience’s embrace of sophisticated theatrical material.

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