'Barbecu': Western version of 'Ring' cycle branded rip-roaring fun

January 14, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Imagine, if you will, that Richard Wagner had been born in Texas and that his masterpiece, the "Ring" cycle, was written for the Grand Ole Opry.

No, this isn't "The Twilight Zone," it's "Twilight of the Gods," Texas-style, in other words, "Das Barbecu," the country-western version of the "Ring" that's currently whomping up a hoot 'n' hollering good time at Center Stage.

Originally commissioned by the Seattle Opera in 1991 as a companion piece for "The Ring," "Das Barbecu" had to adhere to a number of restrictions, chief among them that the cast be limited to five actors and the length to 90 minutes.

The version that composer Scott Warrender, librettist Jim Luigs and director Christopher Ashley have mounted in Center Stage's Head Theater is about 20 minutes longer than that, but it's still a marvel of economy considering that the "Ring's" four operas are spread out over 20-some hours.

Granted, the convoluted plot -- which focuses on an all-powerful, but cursed gold ring -- does get a mite confusing. The show's creators acknowledge this and attempt to compensate for it from the very first number, "A Ring of Gold in Texas," which is interrupted by a narrator who fires a gun and tries to sort things out for the audience.

Using a narrator is an amusingly self-conscious device, but it's also a rather bald one that needs to be either played up for greater comic and expository effect or, better yet, played down by setting even more of the exposition to music. For example, the plot's backwoods, kissin'-cousins theme -- Wotan's daughter, Brunnhilde, is engaged to his grandson, Siegfried -- would be a natural for a song explaining the inter-relatedness of the characters.

This suggestion, however, is not intended in any way to denigrate Julie Johnson's hilarious, Dolly Partonesque portrayal of the narrator. For that matter, in a show dependent on its cast's versatility, Johnson proves the most versatile, playing characters including Wotan's wife and his mistress, as well as a synchronized-swimming Rivermaiden and a cattle-horn-adorned Valkyrie.

Although the other four actors are more recognizable from role to role, they switch wigs, costumes and personalities so nimbly and swiftly that perhaps the best praise came from a theatergoer who was overheard after the show saying, "Do you think there were really only five actors?" And, being recognizable is actually part of the fun of seeing tall, handsome Jeff McCarthy -- an actor with a voice as big as Texas -- play the one-eyed, god-like Wotan as well as Hagen, Wotan's cross-eyed, narcoleptic, half-dwarf nemesis.

Most of Warrender's melodic, Western swing music and Luigs' witty lyrics not only progress the plot and develop the characters, but several numbers, particularly the love song, "Slide a Little Closer"; the ballad, "Wanderin' Man"; and the anthem, "Turn the Tide," would be right at home on the country airwaves. And while many of the songs are knee-slappers in terms of rhythm and humor, only one, a cooking lesson/marital advice number called "Makin' Guacamole," is expendably silly.

The staging by director Ashley and choreographer Stephen Terrell, with wonderfully clever assistance from designer Eduardo Sicangco, is a sheer delight, from the rope-twirling Norns to the water-logged Rhinemaidens, whose synchronized swim number is inspired whimsy.

One element that might have surprised Wagner even more than these touches is the feminist streak that surfaces in Cass Morgan's Brunnhilde, who not only takes charge of her life, but the fate of her family as well.

Indeed, after Brunnhilde's rousing "Turn the Tide," a domestic reconciliation scene between Wotan and his Mrs. seems a bit anti-climactic, as does the reprise of the opening number, "Ring of Gold." But such matters are minor in a work that so remarkably lassos Wagner's magnum opus, wrastles it down to size and produces so much rompin', stompin' fun. Ye Ha!

"Das Barbecu"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Sundays and most Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. Through Feb. 20. (Sign-interpreted performance tomorrow at 2 p.m.; audio-described performance Feb. 13 at 2 p.m.)

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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