Opened April 29 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre
Opera, drama create intriguing hybrid in Figaro
Three stars Figaro, Figaro, Fi-ga-roooo!
Theatre de la Jeune Lune returns to Berkeley Rep with the West Coast premiere of a multimedia Figaro.
Photos by Kevin Berne
There’s no easy way to describe Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Figaro, which opened Tuesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
This is a signature piece from the celebrated Minneapolis-based theater company, and it is, to describe it clunkily, a play-opera-musical comedy, or plopsical.
As conceived by Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand, who also star, Figaro is a re-working of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ three Figaro plays (The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother) into one story told in flashback from the vantage point of the French Revolution, all the while incorporating hefty chunks of the Mozart opera Le Nozze de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, with a libretto by Da Ponte).
Serrand directs in his usual freewheeling style – the Roda stage is wide open with only scattered furniture and video projections (including live video to make the whole thing seem more intimate, which it does, even when the stage action is clearly created with the cameras more in mind than the audience) – and the tone of the evening wanders from slapstick (Serrand is a physical shtick master) to exquisite beauty, both in staging and in musical and emotional content.
If you’re familiar with the opera or with Beaumarchais’ stories, you’ll get a lot more out of the evening. The combination of the three stories, as recalled by an aged Count Almaviva (Serrand) and his barber/servant Figaro (Epp, above) as they hide from guillotine-hungry French revolutionaries, is convoluted. All the mistaken identity high jinks grow wearisome. But the flashbacks are mainly an excuse to launch into great chunks of glorious Mozart music.
Accompanied by the 7th Avenue String Quartet (Alex Kelly on cello, Justin Mackewich on violin, Katrina Weeks on viola and Sarah Jo Zaharako on violin, with Barbara Brooks conducting and playing piano), the singers are unamplified, and just the chance to hear beautiful, unamplified voices in the Roda is reason enough to buy a ticket. This is not opera lite. This is serious opera mixed in with a funny, sometimes ruminative play about aging and our roles in society. These are serious singers, and at nearly three hours, this show is very much an endurance experience, not unlike an opera-house opera.
It’s an interesting proposition: opera people probably want to hear just the opera, while theater people probably prefer the non-musical Epp-Serrand scenes. Then there’s the middle audience, pleased to have some of both, but probably not in such quantity. For the non-opera lover, a little aria goes a long way, even when the opera is staged with energy and humor and general non-stuffiness.
That said, I have to say I adored Jennifer Baldwin Peden (abve left)as the Countess in love with a young rogue, Cherubino (Christina Baldwin, who happens to be Jennifer’s sister, and oh, when their voices join!). Her entrance as a lovelorn maiden adrift in a boat covered in a swath of red material is stunning, as is her Act 2 song of mourning.
Bradley Greenwald is also pretty exciting as the young Count, sparring with the young Figaro (Bryan Boyce) and Figaro’s bride-to-be, Susanna (Momoko Tanno), but as gorgeous as the operatic elements can be, the meat of the evening is really Epp and Serrand and their complicated, ever-changing master-servant relationship. There’s a heavy pall of melancholy over the evening that imbues the proceedings with more heart than you might expect. Epp has a particularly poignant second-act monologue, and as the video camera zooms in and protects his big face on the screen at the back of the stage, you almost feel guilty for watching the projected image rather than the real thing, but the image is incredibly intense and intimate.
Cleverness and beauty abound in Figaro, a work of high art and low pretension. I tend to prefer my theater with less opera and my opera with more theater, but that’s just one of my quirks.
Figaro continues through June 8 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.
Some interesting Figaro-related events at Berkeley Rep:
- Berkeley Rep Book Club gathers Friday, May 9 to discuss Christopher Hibbert’s The Life and Times of the French Revolution at 6:30 p.m. in the Mendel Room in the Roda Theatre. RSVP to 510-647-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- David Gockley of the San Francisco Opera moderates a conversation with Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp of Theatre de Jeune Lune on Monday, May 19 at 7 p.m. on the Thrust Stage (2025 Addison St.). Admission is free.