Review: THE MATCHBOX MAGIC FLUTE at Shakespeare Theatre/Klein Theatre

The two hour production (in English) runs through June 16.

By: May. 25, 2024
Review: THE MATCHBOX MAGIC FLUTE at Shakespeare Theatre/Klein Theatre
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The many wonders of Mary Zimmerman's Die Zauberflöte cannot be undone by the few bits and pieces that aren't perfect; never let the perfect be the enemy of the terrific. The modest-sized rod puppet dragon that pursues Prince Tamino in the opening scene seems like Puff's kid brother until it bites Tamino in the leg and won't let go, thus launching the fantastic, fantastical fantasy that keeps making stuff up until the literal end. Zimmerman has adapted and directed Mozart's final opera into The Matchbox Magic Flute which may not be for opera purists and buffs, but is definitely built to charm and entertain everybody else. Mozart, Shikaneder, and Shakespeare would undoubtedly agree.

Shakespeare, of course, wrote slews of plays in which the lives of peasants parallel the lives of princes, and that's what's going on here. Neither the royal couple (Tamino and Pamina) nor the folk folks (Papageno and Papagena) can get to a happy ending until they prove themselves worthy. Values such as patience, courage, and wisdom, set for them by Magus Sarastro, notably bring democratic/egalitarian values into the foreground of this fairy tale in perfect keeping with the other 1791 trends that The Old Country was at the time learning from The New World. The selfishness of Pamina's angry mother, The Queen of the Night, and the younger woman's would-be sexual predator, Monostatos, cannot win in the enlightened society Mozart and his librettist Shikaneder imagined.

Zimmerman's comic ideas infuse the production; bringing an axe to a dragon fight is a sample (see photo). Papageno, equipped with a clown's red nose (er, beak) declares that he can't stop singing/he's a bird and elsewhere pines for his cuttlebone. This may not read funny, but it very much is especially because of Shawn Pfautsch's unforced singing and capable and very physical acting. He's a perfect hoot (no owl pun intended). Playing his mate Papagena is the insanely gifted Lauren Molina; an outstanding soprano (Helen Hayes award as Cunegonde in STC's Candide), she also glitters as one of the three Ladies (reconceived hilariously by Zimmerman to behave as if they're sisters to The Three Stooges while singing note-perfect Mozart), and Molina joins the band in Act I on accordion and in Act II on cello. (Who does that?) She's part of the chorus line when an ensemble, which includes Rabbit, Fox, and Bird, suddenly segues from doing a proper time step into the dance of the little swans from Swan Lake.

And about that band: Laura Bergquist conducts them from the keyboards (piano and celesta). Amanda Dehnert and Andre Pluess have adapted Mozart's score for her and the other 4 instruments: violin, cello, percussion, and flute (see title; duh). It's a remarkable achievement: the opera purists probably cannot live without O³ (overtures, orchestrations, oboes), but sooooo many of the Mozart's notes (too many notes) have been retained.

Fine singers also are the other two Ladies (Monica West and Tina Muñoz Pandya), who with Molina also have the music of The Three Boys, which really improves things because child sopranos tend to be vocally colorless. Marlene Fernandez makes a lovely Pamina. Russell Mernagh sings an outstanding Monostatos and acts him as ickily as the character always is and always must be. (He also provides excellent service as dragon wrangler.) And Emily Rohm's Queen of the Night brings home two of the most difficult pieces of vocal music ever written; house brought down. Billy Rude's Tamino has many lovely moments, especially when he relaxes into his countertenor register; in the middle of his voice, unfortunately, he often pushes like the Broadway belter he also is. But Rude makes Tamino much more fun than the character usually is because Rude is such a good comic actor. Keanon Kyles as Sarastro seems miscast; Sarastro ought to be a vocally powerful bass, and this performance disappoints. Reese Parish's adorable work as The Spirit would be even more jolly if she found a bit more sprightliness; tasked by Zimmerman as if Tinker Bell were a dancing stagehand who doubles as a miming vaudeville ring master, Parish never speaks, so she really has to muster more energy in order to hold her own onstage with the likes of Molina, Pfautsch, Rude, and Rohm. (Judy Garland in interviews used to claim that she had a similar problem on set with her three hambone companions on the yellow brick road.)

Ana Kuzmanić's costume designs are just wonderful. Papageno's suit jacket comes with it's own self-fabric tailfeathers interrupting the hem at the back. The Queen of the Night's red and black gown gloriously matches her volcanic personality. Tamino's full-skirted tunic helps the actor move like the prince he is. Monostatos wears an unforgettably devilish jacket, envisioning the devil actually in de-tail. (That's a joke, son; Zimmerman's comic spirit is contagious.)

Set Designer Todd Rosenthal has made the proscenium arch look like one that would be familiar to Mozart. Then inside the arch, he has useful sliding trees, portable ocean waves, and periaktoi as backdrop to facilitate swift, actor-enabled scene changes into the woods, inside a palace, in the sky.

The less said about Pluess' sound "design," the better. All the singer-actors and instruments are miked. If they were not, then the band couldn't be louder in Act I than the singing and vice versa in Act II. Nor would the house right percussion be coming out of the house left speaker. Eight out of nine of Zimmerman's singers have sufficient vocal technique to be heard well in the Klein Theatre with no amplification.

But never mind. Watching Zimmerman think about theatre and appreciate Mozart makes up for the sound system. Within these hallowed halls, kennt man die Rache nicht . . . [und] Mensch den Menschen liebt (there's no such thing as vengeance and everybody loves everyone). And Mary Zimmerman has magic to do, just for you.

The two hour production (in English) runs through June 16.

(Photo by Liz Lauren)


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