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BWW Review: Caught in the Net of Prototype's ACQUANETTA at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center

BWW Review: Caught in the Net of Prototype's ACQUANETTA at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center
Mikaela Bennett as Acquanetta.
Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki

"Memories of Things Past"--"A la recherche du temps perdu" in Proust-speak--and very much in the past it was, for me at least, going in to ACQUANETTA, the piece that opened this year's iteration of the PROTOTYPE. Its name and purported subject--horror films--conjured up childhood memories for me: my mother's Aqua Net Hair Spray (still available on and weekend outings with my father to some horror film or other. Musically and dramatically, however, ACQUANETTA--by Michael Gordon, composer (of 'Bang on a Can' fame), Deborah Artman, librettist (ditto)--was very much in the present and in a class of its own, seen January 10 at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center.

Aquanetta, as it turns out, was a B-rated movie actress (born Mildred Davenport), nicknamed the "Venezualan Volcano" by Universal Studios, who starred in TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN (1946) and various other minor film epics. But the opera/theatre piece created by Gordon and Artman, hearkens to CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943), where her billing was "shockingly savage Acquanetta as THE GORILLA GIRL! The brain of an animal, the form of a woman! She's half human! Half beast!"

The work, however has more on its mind than being a campy horror film take-off and it couldn't be more timely, considering the current climate in Hollywood. (The original, grand opera format of the piece, however, opened in Aachen Germany, back in 2006.) According to the festival notes, it "examines the ways the movie camera manipulates how we see and are seen."

And how.

It's filled with surprises and, although the piece only runs 70 minutes or so, it manages to keep its revelations pretty close to the vest. Are we watching a film? Virtual reality?, we wonder, as the opening goes on (rather longer than needed, I thought), with the spectacularly inventive soprano Mikaela Bennett in the title role, rattling off all the things she thinks the film industry needs from her ('conceal me, disguise me...metamorphose me, cancel me...repudiate me, covert me...'). But in reality, as we, and she, find out when the makeup person takes charge, all it wants from her is to turn her into the same glamour-puss as every other starlet on the lot.

Finally, we get a glimpse into what's going on, as a performer comes out of the darkness and we then a peek at something going on backstage, which shows how "the movie camera manipulates how we see and are seen" (as the program notes). Everything we've been watching on screen has been telecast live from behind a faux wall, asking more questions than it answers, including matters of gender and the manipulative part that we, the audience, play in what we witness when we go to the movies.

I can't quite imagine how successful the "grand opera format" of the original ACQUANETTA was, but in the confines of the Gelsey Kirkland Theatre, this chamber version worked very well indeed. (The dramaturg was Michael R. Jackson.) Gordon's intense music--performed exceptionally well by the Bang on a Can Opera musicians and members of the Trinity Wall Street Choir, under Daniela Candillari--with its energetic rhythms, highly amplified, electronic sound and rapidly changing harmonies, embroiled us in its excesses.

It was an outrageous 75 minutes, under director Daniel Fish. The rest of the cast--Amelia Watkins as Brainy Woman, Eliza Brag as the Ape, Timur as the Doctor and Matt Boehler as the Director--couldn't have been bettered. And cheers to the production team for a stellar job: Amy Rubin and Jim Findlay (scenic designers), Joshua Higgins (video desginer), Terese Wadden (costume designer), Barbara Samuels (lighting designer), and Garth MacAleavey (sound designer).

This is the kind of piece that we count on PROTOTYPE to bring to the fore--and it certainly started off this year's event with a bang.

The final performance of ACQUANETTA--co-presented with GK Arts Center--is Sunday, January 14.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow