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The Stendhal Syndrome: Full Frontal Nudity and Prelude & Liebestod
By Elyse Sommer
It takes a writer as passionate about classical music as Terrence McNally and with his gift for laugh laced high drama to poke fun at its most illustrious names and toss an erotically charged operatic monologue into the mix. In Prelude & Liebestod the second and best of the two plays presented under the umbrella title of The Stendhal Syndrome, McNally succeeds admirably. His egomaniacal conductor's interior monologue begins as comic opera and builds to the sturm and drang of grand opera. This complex role calls for a first-rate actor to take his place on the conductor's podium and the play couldn't be blessed with a more perfect maestro than Richard Thomas.
Thomas is hilarious as he wields his baton and lets his thoughts roam from joy at being on the podium ("I love it up here") to silently admonishing the soprano for not understanding the music and even taking on Wagner ("I don't think this is such a great passage right here, but he's fucking Richard Wagner, so I conduct it like I think it's a great passage"). The personal thoughts woven into his conducting end with a pornographically detailed youthful sexual encounter. This is so mesmerizingly woven into the crescendo of the Wagnerian finale that even the prim and proper members of the audience might forget to be offended by the x-rated language.
While these are distinct and separate plays, written at different times (the opening piece written in 2002 and the other, though said to be heavily revised, dating back to 1992), they are elegantly unified. Besides the inner thoughts peppered through each, there's the connecting thematic thread -- the exploration of how art affects us emotionally and erotically, as viewers and listeners and as creators.
Director Leonard Foglia and his design team have further strengthened the ties binding the plays together. Michael McGarty's beautiful set is stunningly utilized for the Academia where tour guide Bimbi (Rosselini) brings a group of tourists to see Michelangelo's David and the concert hall where the Leonard Bernstein-like Conductor (Thomas) steers an orchestra (represented by Michael Countryman as a deliciously disdainful concertmaster) and a bored diva (Mudge) thrugh Wagner's Liebestod. Only the base of the giant statue is exchanged between acts for a conducting podium. Other shifts in setting are created by Russell H. Champa's magical lighting and Elaine McCarthy's subtle projections upon a large circular window. In the introductory piece the projections are constantly changing images of what the viewers see as they gaze upward into space. In the second play the David projections are transformed into an image of a large symphony hall.
As the audience of Prelude & Liebestod is limited to the conductor's wife (Rosselini) and a fan in the other balcony (Vásquez) seeking a post-concert intimate connection, so the tour group is compressed into just three Americans instead of the more typical throng found on such excursions. Yul Vázquez and Jennifer Mudge are funny as two air-headed types, named Leo and Lana (her name seeds a laugh out loud snippet about Lana Turner). Their dumbness prompts the inner Bimbi's exasperated "The worst part of my job is that I have to ask them what they think because then I have to listen to what they say." Michael Countryman plays the more intellectual member of the group, a former academic and grieving widower. In the end the David's overwhelming beauty has its Stendhalian effect, changing the hostile dynamics of the group to one of shared awe.
For long-time McNally watchers -- fans of Master Class and his earlier Lisbon Traviata -- The Stendhal Syndrome, will come as a considerably slighter yet enjoyable sequel. Those who associate McNally with the book for The Full Monty might not be quite as enamored but then the culture challenged Leo and Lana were turned on so this may well win a few converts to classical sculpture and music.
The homo--erotic uncensored language of the final part of Prelude & Liebestod should also be kept in mind before buying a ticket for a straight-laced friend or relative though I should add that at the matinee press performance I attended, the predominantly older audience seemed more stimulated than shocked. This was borne out at the brief talkback. The comments and questions were a lot smarter than Leo and Lana's and Isabella Rossellini, who was on hand, had a lot more to be pleased about than Bimbi.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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