Monsters and Prodigies
Play with music by Jorge Kuri (inspired by Patrick Barbier’s nonfiction book “The World of the Castrati”)
Performed by Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes
Directed by Claudio Valdés Kuri
Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Feb. 5, 6, and 7, 2009
Photo: Jose Jorge Carreon.
There comes a moment well into “Monsters and Prodigies” when bread flies. Not a single loaf borne aloft by wings, but numerous rolls hurled in mock warfare, a real Battle of the Buns. Though the giddy Three Stooges spectacle lifts this curious saga with music (subtitled “A History of the Castrati”) into the realm of farce, it can’t entirely save it from becoming a ponderous meditation on the pursuit of absolute beauty in art.
Not that Mexico’s energetic Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes doesn’t try, very hard, to turn a rambling, windy discourse about the cruel extremities of Baroque music into a jaunty romp, packed with vulgar pratfalls and slapstick. But Jorge Kuri’s examination of the 18th century cult surrounding castrated boys and their later lives as musical celebrities of their age, coupled with director Claudio Valdés Kuri’s dramatically under-realized production, leave the actors huffing and puffing and blowing us away with their virtuosity but not advancing what is essentially a lecture about the aesthetic torments of the Baroque.
Raúl Román and Gastón Yanes play Jean/Ambroise Paré, the Siamese twin barber/surgeons who specialize in performing the unkind cut in Naples. They must haul the bulk of the play’s expository verbiage (in Spanish and Italian, with English supertitles), and they do so with dogged aplomb, serving as commentator/guides while the story unfolds, often excruciatingly, over the decades. Countertenor Javier Medina, as the castrato Il Virtuoso, sings his excerpts from Handel arias convincingly, if not always beautifully, all the while costumed in clownishly over-the-top get-ups (created by Mario Iván Martinez), replete with feather-festooned headgear. Though he originally conveys the underlying pathos of his life as a castrato, his tendency to ham it up as a pouty, demanding proto-diva kills any sympathy he planted earlier.
Assuming several roles (harpsichordist, music tutor, courtly benefactor, et al.), Edwin Calderón opens the scene time and again in what amount to a series of set pieces. Miguel Angel López adds more heavy-handed philosophical counterpoint as Chiron the centaur, who serves as a reminder that man’s noodling with animals produced earlier versions of the monsters that come later in the form of genitally mutilated singers of opera. What we are to make of Sulaiman, played with ferocious abandon by Kaveh Parmas, is anybody’s guess. Certainly, he is also a man-made monster (we get a graphic display of his status as a eunuch), but his presence as a servant and constant sidekick to Jean/Ambroise reveals not so much the playwright’s desire to liken a slave’s existence with a castrato’s but more a sidetracked dalliance with other themes, such as the horrors of colonialism and the European misunderstanding of native culture and the “noble savage.” By the end, Sulaiman has morphed into a kind of tyrant, hurling orders and, in partnership with Napoleon Bonaparte (local actor Noel Wood in a bravura cameo), chasing effete wimps around the stage.
For all of its rambunctious energy, much of “Monsters and Prodigies” drags, weighed down by its wordiness and seeming inability to nail its central message: if beauty at all costs is the point of obsessive baroque art, what parallels exist in our own devalued world, with our visual culture insistent on physical perfection and the illusion of eternal youth, in the name of which any number of surgical atrocities are committed? That’s one uncomfortable question this work only hints at, leaving us oddly unsatisfied after a glut of ideas. We learn much about the castrati, it’s true, but end up caring little.