Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The "picnic" part lies in their choice of performance venues, always outdoors in verdant settings around the Twin Cities as well as greater Minnesota, such as community gardens, nature centers, wineries and parks. The audience is seated on blankets or folding chairs, and periodically throughout the show, cast and crew members pass around trays of bite-size delicacies suggested by a line or event in the show. The result, year after year, has been a giddy, good time with highly skilled vocalists taking the operatic roles, frisky staging, inventively devised costumes and set pieces, and a broad humor as the plot of the original opera is usually reworked to cast a satiric wink at current events or concerns.
This year would have been Mixed Precipitation's twelfth Picnic Operetta, but alas, like every other theater company here and around the nation, the coronavirus pandemic dropped the curtain on their plans. However, the company's undaunted founder and artistic director Scotty Reynolds was able to secure funds to gather a group of longtime associates and devise a miniaturized version of their trademark Picnic Operetta. Of course, the food sampling element is untenable at the present moment, so the concept had to be rethought to suit the times.
The result has been dubbed a Pickup Truck Operetta, in that the sets, costumes, instruments, sound equipment, and everything else needed to mount a show are loaded up on a pickup truck that is carrying the production to novel venues. The bed of the truck provides a bandstand for the show's three nimble musicians, with the action staged in front of the vehicle.
As its operatic base, the company chose one of the earliest works in the canon, Il ritorno d'Ulisse, by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. The opera premiered in Bologna in 1640. It is the saga of the hero Ulysses' return to Greece after twenty years of wandering following the Trojan War, as told by Homer in Odyssey. Monteverdi is considered to be the bridge between music of the Renaissance and the baroque period, and elements of both epochs can be heard in the score. And who is a more logical pop music counterpart to renaissance and baroque than Dolly Parton, in a setting shifted to a comically conceived kingdom plopped down in the wild west? With a shortened timeframe to create a show, the company settled on mounting an installment to which it plans to add in future seasons. For now, we have the pleasure of The Odyssey, Episode Three: The Songs of Telemaco.
Telemaco, the son of Ulysses and his wife Penelope, who went from childhood to manhood during his father's long absence, had gone off in search of his father. His homecoming presages Ulysses' return, with aid from the goddess Minerva, and the downfall of the three suitors who have been begging Penelope to give up her long vigil waiting for her husband's return and choose one of them as her new husband.
While Episode Three runs a scant forty minutes, it is chock full of Mixed Precipitation's trademark qualities: excellence in the vocal performances; instrumentalists who play beautifully when beauty is called for, and at other times create a jaunty good time sound; fast-paced staging by Reynolds and Jacob (Jäc) Miller that keeps the story moving at a pace that could be called breathless, but not reckless; and wonderfully creative costumes and puppets designed by Rhiannon Fiskradaatz. In this production the latter includes a two-headed puppet that fills in for the three suitors pursuing Penelope, and hidden scrolls that reveal greatly abridged English translations of Il ritorno d'Ulisse, sung in the original Italian.
The cast are all talented and all game, with several playing multiple roles or doubling up as members of the band. Soprano Momoko Tanno sings beautifully as Penelope, and projects the cunning needed to deflect her suitors even as she despairs over Ulysses' prolonged absence. Benjamin Kornelis, a talented singer and composer, plays the human Ulysses (the character is first introduced as a puppet), and conveys the hero's stalwart determination. His tenor lifts up his musical moments, and a highlight is when Kornelis sings with his real life son Jason Kornelis, who portrays his onstage son Telemaco, as well as making beautiful music on cello. As Minerva, Tara Priolo slyly projects a smart, no-nonsense goddess who expects her advice to taken.
In addition to Kornelis, the versatile Joni Griffith is terrific on the pump organ and violin (she also briefly takes on the roles of two gruff kings), and Sarina Partridge holds down the center of the band on banjo. Of the Dolly Parton songs interpolated into the show, the most winning use is made of "Here You Go Again," but all are performed with affection for Dolly and her musical genre.
This first-time-ever Pickup Truck Operetta, The Odyssey, Episode Three: The Song of Telemaco, is a short-form of the Picnic Operetta, and lacks the rich satisfaction of a full-length production, not to mention the tasty nibbles. Given that the world of theater is operating only through the invention of diehard artists like Reynolds and his gang, and that small portions are available while three course meals are not, this outing provides a jolt of entertainment to keep our appetite for theater primed until it can return to its full flowering. It is, after all, a good thing, to leave a show saying "that was great funI can't wait for more!"
The Odyssey, Episode Three: The Song of Telemaco has performances on October 11, 2020, 3:00 at Short Line Park in Saint Paul, and 5:00 at Bryn Mawr Meadows in Minneapolis, October 25, 2020, 3:00 and 5:00, both at West 7th and St. Peter Streets in downtown Saint Paul MN. All performance sites are outdoors. Donation of $10.00 - $20.00 is suggested. For more on performance dates, locations and reservations, please visit mixedprecipitation.org.
Music: Claudio Monteverdi and Dolly Parton; Libretto: Caterina Mazzola; Music and Libretto adopted by: Scotty Reynolds and Gary Ruschman, with contributions from the cast and creative crew; Director: Scotty Reynolds and Jacob (Jäc) Miller; Music Director and Arrangements: Gary Ruschman; Choreography: Jacob (Jäc) Miller; Set and Prop Design: Duane Tougas; Costume and Puppet Design: Rhiannon Fiskradaatz.
Cast: Yvonne Freese (Ulysses - puppet, the Suitors of Penelope), Joni Griffith (King Nestor, King Meneleaus, pump organ, violin), Benjamin Kornelis (Ulysses - human), Jason Kornelis (Telemaco, cello), Andrew Niemi (Eumeaus), Audrey Niemi (Eurycleia), Sarina Partridge (banjo), Tara Priolo (Minerva), Momoko Tanno (Penelope).