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A CurtainUp Review
A Parsifal

By Lisa Quintela

This is a play. This is a death. This is slowness. If we slow down enough, then we'll never die. If we move into the future we will die. We will not die. --- Parsifal.

Black-Eyed Susan
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Director John Jahnke's avant-garde interpretation of Susan Sontag's analysis of A Parsifal, Richard Wagner's eponymous opera, is just as daunting and abstruse as it sounds. Originally an introduction to an exhibition catalog of director Robert Wilson's set designs, Sontag's playlet deconstructs Wagner's five-hour long music-drama into six pages. Needless to say, Sontag has chewed down the epic tale to its bare bones-leaving key plot points malnourished, despite the production notes provided in the playbill. If spectators aren't in tune with the Arthurian legend and Wagner's oeuvre, then A Parsifal will seem as nonsensical as solving a Rubik's cube in the dark.

The story follows Parsifal, a young fool who is raised by his widowed mother in the forest. In messiah-like fashion he proves to withstand temptations from an enchantress named Kundry (Okwui Okpokwasili), among other malevolent forces, to reclaim the sacred spear (which pierced Christ's side) that will save the life of the wounded King of the Holy Grail. At first, he is incapable of empathy and unaware of his ability to do good or evil, but then painfully realizes that he must attain self-knowledge before he can assume guardianship of the Holy Grail. Through his agonizing journey, he learns compassion and is viewed as a hero for resisting his corrupt cravings.

In Jahnke's production, a naked Parsifal totes an Uzi instead of a bow and arrow and brushes off the damage his weapon can inflict by saying, "Oh this. It's nothing. In my country everyone has one." Emotionally and intellectually handicapped, he admits that he tries to read as little as possible and remains indifferent when the ailing King of Pain (Grant Neale) rolls by on a gurney. Although he suffers pain, his rite of passage, rather than redeeming him, makes him even icier and hungry for unwarranted power.

Wagner frequently described Parsifal as "a guileless fool." "Stupid is as stupid does" may still apply to Sontag's Parsifal, but this modern knight is anything but guileless.

Much like finding the grail, Jahnke discovered Sontag's dusty script some years ago while browsing through a 1991 issue of the defunct literary journal Antaeus at the Housing Works Used Book Café. His task of making a full-length play out of a drastically compressed story is certainly overwhelming.

For the first fifteen minutes, spectators can't help but be intrigued by Michael Casselli's all-white Asian-inspired set that houses a large swing upstage. More eye candy comes in the form of Black-Eyed Susan who plays an eerie ostrich-imaginatively costumed by Hillary Moore-that occasionally uses a microphone to offer prolifically vague advice to Gardiner Comfort's detached Parsifal.

Filtering the brainy script through a homoerotic lens, Jahnke's vision depicts a chorus of torso-sculpted Knights in a dream-like setting that decelerates Sontag's text into a painful snail's pace. The political references, although relevant, are not groundbreaking. And even though Jahnke's staging is incredibly graceful, with a sophisticated cast that echoes the measured movement of Japanese Noh theater, the script itself proves so spare and deeply intertextual, that the revamped Parsifal proves to be quite numbing.
Playwright: Susan Sontag
Directed by John Jahnke
Choreography: Hillary Spector
Cast: Black Eyed Susan, Gardiner Comfort, Okwui Okpokwasili, Grant Neale, Kathryn Gracey, Andrew Schneider, Mathew Bondy, Nathan Bock.
Set Design: Michael Casselli
Costume Design: Ramona Ponce, Hillary Moore, and Pilar Limosner
Lighting Design: Shaun Fillion
Sound Design: Kristin Worrall
Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes
Performance Space 122 150 First Ave. at E. 9th St. 212-477-5288
2/23/06 to 3/05/06: opening 2/23/06
Wednesday toSaturday at 8:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m.
Tickets: $2 0($10 Members)
Reviewed by Lisa Quintela based on Feb. 25th performance
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