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A CurtainUp Review
Princess Turandotby Les Gutman
People are being executed left and right.
Peking's beginning to look like Texas.
Billed as a "holiday event for all ages," Darko Tresnjak's adaptation of the story of Turandot is indeed a fine alternative to The Nutcracker or the Radio City Christmas show this month. It's an interesting, entertaining and far more intimate experience for children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who say "been there/done that" to the standard holiday fare. And tag-along adults will be more than engaged as well.
Lovers of Puccini's opera will be on generally familiar ground here, although Tresnjak has mined Carlo Gozzi's 1792 fable (his prime source) for more substance than you'll get from the opera. (Theatergoers will remember Gozzi from last season's under-appreciated The Green Bird, our review linked below.)
Don't expect reverential treatment of anything: Tresnjak is on a happy frolic in which commedia is blended with contemporary references (everything from Gypsy to Rugrats in Paris to Hitchcock to Jackie Chan), and theater jokes, breaks in the fourth wall and blatantly broad, over-the-top performances are the order of the day. That, plus an extraordinary display of masks, puppets, acrobats and jugglers (reflective of Tresnjak's ties to Andrei Serban), ensures that the lively pace does not flag. His use of shadow puppets is particular inventive.
Tresnjak is mindful of his storytelling duties too: for the kids, he keeps it simple and clear; for the adults, he incorporates enough psychology -- and adult humor -- to maintain everyone's interest. For the most part, this works, although adults must be prepared for more clowning than normal, and younger audiences may (as did my school-aged companion) find some things in the show "odd".
In this fable, Princess Turandot (Roxanna Hope) has convinced her Emperor father (Crispin Freeman) to decree that she will marry the first man of royal blood who can correctly solve three riddles. The catch is, she insists (motivated by revenge, we later learn) that anyone failing to solve the riddles must be decapitated. The sweetness of her revenge to date is quantified by the large number of skeleton heads displayed behind scrims on either side of David P. Gordon's set (something of a modern pagoda, effectively enhanced by Christopher Landy's lighting).
Enter Prince Calaf (James Stanley), his identity disguised, who is intoxicated by the sight of the Princess. He insists, against all advice, on attempting the riddles. When he solves them in short order, Turandot resists going through with the ceremony. Not wanting to marry someone who is unwilling, Calaf proposes his own riddle: if Turandot can discover from whence he came and his true identity, he will submit to decapitation at her hand; if not, they will wed. With much effort, and not a little intrigue, she succeeds. Does she chop off his head? I bet you already know.
Much of the acting is so intentionally preposterous it can only be evaluated on the basis of whether it makes you laugh. It does. Especially good are Josh Radnor's Brighella (a monument to affectation), Andrew Weems as the chief of the band of three eunuchs, Truffaldino (a mine field of double entendre) and Turandot's two free-wheeling court-maids, Zelina (Susan Pourfar) and Adelma (Maria Elena Ramirez). Jeffrey Binder provides the play's warm heart as Pantalone.
Above them all is Ms. Hope, who seems able to deliver abject parody and genuine emotion without losing her balance, while most of the remainder of the principal cast members fall in the adequate-but-not-memorable category. The cast also includes a group of especially able performers of the acrobatic sort; they add much to the festivities, especially in an extravagant percussion/dance number with which the second act opens (and which was choreographed by Blue Man Group's Pete Simpson.
... and a good time was had by all.
CurtainUp's review of The Green Bird