A sad and wistful drama fairy tale is given a fun and playful staging as Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks present Rusalka. Dvořák’s opera playfully glides across Danceworks’ cozy space somewhere between Downtown and the East Side in a brisk 80 minutes without intermission.
The Czech version of the Little Mermaid legend is presented in a graceful dance and beautiful song that is hosted by narrator Jason Powell as The Moon. Powell also adapted the opera for the production, which conjures a crisp, contemporary atmosphere for the ancient story. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik has found a clever variety of ways to keep things light while remaining true to the original opera. Quite a lot of this involves some very sharp and nuanced work by choreographer Christal Wagner.
Not long after a few mood-establishing moments, Powell enters to welcome everyone...dressed exactly like the moon in sparkly athletic shoes and something resembling a white jumpsuit with a sewn-on name patch that clearly identifies him as, “Moon.” Saira Frank is equal parts powerful and vulnerable as the water spirit Rusalka who has fallen in love with a mortal man. Colleen Brooks summons a darkly droll craftiness in the role of Ježibaba--the witch who agrees to turn Rusalka into a mortal girl in exchange for her voice. Tim Rebers is quite charming as the guy that Rusalka has fallen for. He’s completely unaware of the magic in the world around him, but deeply connected with the whole idea of romantic love as witness by the fact that he falls for Rusalka and a visiting foreign princess who becomes an integral part of the story’s central conflict.
Powell, Ponasik and Wagner’s best collaboration involves a party. A romantic triangle between Rusalka, her love and a foreign princess is given clever presence. The dancers move about in a brilliant fusion between a casual party mood and graceful ballet amidst the overwhelming iconic presence of shiny, red plastic solo cups. Kaitlyn Moore has a sharply witty presence onstage as the somewhat bored foreign princess who has kind of a lot to drink. Moore’s drunken grace has the same kind of understated precision that her disaffected, unengaged silence manages at the top of the scene.
The flow of action feels a bit strange. The sudden crash of events at the end of the story IS quite sad. Somehow Powell, Ponassik and Wagner manage to maintain the overall playfulness of the production without compromising the sadness of the ending. It’s not really all that clear how they manage this.
It's playful. It's witty. It's sad. It's tragic. It's romance and indifference and dance and song. And it's like...80 minutes in a cozy, little theatre. Things are so cleverly balanced onstage that the mood seems to make sense even if it really has no business doing so. There’s a kind of magic in turning a 3-hour-long show into a more manageable 80 minutes. It’s a magic that allows for whimsical, little dichotomies to peak out of the shadows and tumble across the stage in a graceful and deeply satisfying fusion of music and dance.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks’ production of Rusalka runs through Feb. 12 at Danceworks Studio Theatre on 1661 N Water Street. For mor information, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre Online.