Kaspar Hauser: foundling’s opera

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03/25/2009 3:19 PM |

Theater review by Liam Pierce

Well, you certainly can’t blame The Flea Theater for being unenthusiastic. Their production of Kaspar Hauser, a new self-proclaimed opera (which suggests there is no difference between operas and musicals) by Elizabeth Swados, presents a bushytailed version of the real-life legend of a feral orphan found in 1828 Nuremberg.

This true story has been muse to a whole truckload of artists. From Werner Herzog to Melville to Smallville, every version recounts the discovery of Kaspar Hauser, a seventeen-year-old boy famous for his claim to have been raised in isolation under lock and key. (Your high school psychology notes on nature vs. nurture practically slap you upside the head here.)

Swados’ adaptation carves off any of the complex commentary and scientific research built up over the years (a lot of which points to Kaspar being a fraud), and leaves you with a smooth and squeaky Disney-like version of a sociological case study. It plays to the now-dispelled legend that Kaspar Hauser was an heir to the throne of Baden, stolen at birth and locked away to pave the royal way for the wicked Lady Fromme’s son. The lines of morality are cookie-cut — each villain given their own sidekick and scheming solo, each path forked neatly between good and evil.

We follow Kaspar’s introductions to society, each experience presented on an, It’s a Small World-style conveyor belt procession: the probing scientists followed by the slanderous media followed by the god-bothering Christians. This bombardment of social ills eventually suffocates Kaspar, his life summarized into a constant state of victimhood, his innocence exploited and perverted. With this oft-reiterated message, Kaspar Hauser leaves the audience feeling a little victimized too.

Despite the fact that a "Kaspar Hauser" Wikipedia search presents more nuance and dramatic tension, there is a charming quality to this production. Much of this is owed to the theater group The Bats (whose Chad Lindsey was recently featured in a Times article regarding his heroic subway rescue-turned-self-promotion, headshot included). The Bats take to the gratingly plain lyrics (one repeated line stands out: "The most pleasant trip I could take would be one to my country estate." Wha?) with a bright enthusiasm that keeps the show engaging. Alongside the ebullient individual performances — especially Preston Martin’s playful Kaspar — the ensemble keeps everything swift and wide-eyed throughout, making for a continuous, sensational — if slightly over-acted — display.

Moreover, the show is aesthetically sharp. With a rickety set built of aged wood, and clever staging throughout various levels, you feel like you’re watching a German village from a hillside. The costumes and makeup also contribute to the chronological and historical verisimilitude. They present a nostalgic, fairytale-like painting of the characters, dressed in muted, clownish makeup and frilly 19th century garb. When all of this artifice is set into motion with the full-ensemble and clockwork-like choreography, the musical hits its full stride.

Though the plot and lyrics leave you wanting a couple more workshops, the production is finely tuned, and makes for an entertaining night, even if its childlike politics are better suited to a pre-teen audience’s sensibilities.

Through March 28 at the Flea Theater.