Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, known formally as Der Ring des Nibelungen, is a four-part gesamtkunstwerk (bear with me here) from the mid-19th century that is staged in four parts with a total running time of up to 16 hours. It isn't something that's overwhelmingly familiar to most people — outside of opera fanatics — in the 21st century.
Then there's the state of Texas, not just a state but a state of mind for people far and wide. The mostly flat, largely grassy expanse dotted by cities and towns — home to Lyndon Johnson, Larry McMurtry, Molly Ivins, Janis Joplin and even Owen Wilson — looms large in the collective consciousness.
These disparate rivers flow into the confluence of Das Barbecu at North Coast Repertory Theatre, which reimagines Wagner's epic, with its gods, half-dwarves, rings and funeral pyres, and puts it right down in the plains of Texas. Rather than arias and Götterdämmerung, here we have down-home sass, twang and chicken-fried steak.
My attempting to fully synopsize Wagner's opera here would do no one any good; it's a complex and audacious story that comes out of a medium from a different era. But you don't need to be well-versed in the tale or to have caught a lengthy production of it on PBS in your 20s (and yes, that would be my own wild youth) to enjoy Das Barbecu. Originally staged by the Seattle Opera a quarter-century back, the idea was to make a fun production out of something fairly hifalutin' while keeping intact a story that dates back to Norse legend.
Even though it falls short in some areas, the level on which Das Barbecu best succeeds is logistically: Six cast members cover about 30 roles over the course of more than two hours, running the gamut from the leads to singing river maidens to Texas Rangers. The exception to this is Mike Craghead, who occupies only the role of Wotan, the eye-patched, swaggering-but-flummoxed hero of the story. He's wed to Fricka (an outstanding Elizabeth Erenberger, recently seen in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), his long-suffering wife. Admirably, this adaptation keeps, by my count, almost all the names — Brunnhilde, Seigfried, Gunther — from Wagner's original opera, and still propels ahead on its own path.
Craghead is a strong presence with a great singing voice, authentically embodying someone you might encounter in the boonies if you ran out of gas on a two-lane road between, say, Throckmorton and Paint Creek. Erenberger provides a great foil and counterpart to him throughout, and the two of them provide some of the best Lone Star State-isms of the night ("I'm gonna get fixin' to see what's shakin' with this nuptial nonsense.")
Said nonsense involves some wedding chicanery best seen played out rather than fully explained — a whole lot of it involves a ring, what with this being, well, adapted from a ring cycle. The Texas touches, often reminiscent of the long-ago network soap drama "Dallas," are spot-on and handled deftly by director Chris Hamby. Newcomer Haley Katz does a fine job in her wide range of roles, and Cara O' Doniel is great all around, especially in her great solo rendition of "County Fair."
It's an ambitious production for NCRT, one with sharp technical achievements in the costume work throughout from Laura Rhinehart and the accompanying music on stage from Michael Donovan, Ken Burton and (the Journal's own) Jonathan Webster. However, Das Barbecu gets tripped up in some ways by the limitations of the material. Even though, as I said, anyone who doesn't know Der Ring des Nibelungen from a hole in a ground is bound to have a good time, in the end, the production's inability to totally break free from the original material and have a more freewheeling time is a liability.
On paper, this adaptation is a clever idea — to do something different with a classical work. But while some numbers ("Hog-Tie Your Man") are brought to great life by the cast and the visually imaginative direction, some others ("Makin' Guacamole") fall a little flat. All in all, there are good, even great bits of camp to be had amid the concept and able execution here. But on balance, it doesn't fully meet the mark. And you can come down on me quicker than a dirt devil on a crooked gopher for that judgment, but that there's how it is.
Das Barbecu runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 20, with a Thursday showing at 8 p.m. on Feb. 18. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.
Humboldt Light Opera Company's Souvenir brings the real-life figure of Florence Foster Jenkins, an opera wannabe with a tin ear, to the HLOC's Space stage Friday, Jan. 29 through Sunday, Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. Call 822-3319 or visit www.hloc.org.
Don't Be Afraid, It's Only Commedia! gives the stage over to the classic style of highly physical and improvised stage comedy. This one is for the grown ups and runs Thursday, Feb. 4 through Saturday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. at Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre. Call 668-5663 ext. 5.
Threepenny Opera brings Mack the Knife to the Arcata Playhouse from Thursday, Feb. 4 through Sunday, Feb. 14 at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The joint production between Arcata Playhouse and Ferndale Repertory Theatre moves to Ferndale for the rest of the month. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.