Bribery, persuasion, seduction—these are all methods I endorse using in order to obtain a ticket for The Fool, Raúl De Nieves and Colin Self’s jaw-droppingly impressive opera that is playing at the Kitchen in New York tonight and tomorrow. Tickets sold out long ago. It is time for extreme measures.
The opera opened to a packed house last night—a bitterly cold one, after a day of heavy snow—and those people more than got their money’s worth. What exactly they saw, though, is a bit of a complicated matter. The Fool runs about an hour, and centers on four characters—the Child (played by Alexandra Drewchin), the Mother (Mehron Abdollmohammadi), the Old Woman (Self), and the Dog (De Nieves). Over the course of four acts, they are buffeted by various types of trauma—which, very loosely speaking, might involve birth, death, and child abduction.
Last night, a string quartet and an electronically-augmented percussionist induced moods that were eerie, spectral, delicately beautiful, and darkly comical. At the end of the performance, a curator friend I happened to be sitting next to declared, “That was very frightening!” He was dead serious.
The opera opened with high creepiness, as about 20 people in white body suits streamed into the dimly lit theater from the Kitchen’s lobby and then disappeared behind a towering, bejeweled diptych on stage that might have been made by a glammed-out Niki de Saint Phalle. Unseen, this chorus launched into a chant—“Beginning and end, neither and otherwise, betwixt and between, the end is the beginning”—repeating those lines and growing quieter until their voices were just a menacing whisper.
Narrating this rather non-linear story feels like a dubious endeavor, but at one point, the Child, dressed in a peasant hat, was onstage playing with a doll and hugging the (his?) Mother. Later, the diptych slid open to reveal the Dog, who slowly, sensually stalked around the stage and eventually pulled the child away, back to the chorus.
The work had the feel of a mystical European folk story being presented with the potent but alien rigor of Gregorian chants, somehow spliced together with both the foreboding terror of Eyes Wide Shut and, at some particularly grand moments, the unrestrained furor of the Carmina Burana—that last reference point being particularly powerful near the end, when the chorus emerged from the diptych with their suits suddenly bulbous, inflated in a way that “can only be described as Wonka-esque,” as my colleague John Chiaverina wrote, on the occasion of the work’s 2014 premiere in Brooklyn.
Holding clipboard-like objects with LED lights that lit their faces as if they were astronauts in a wonderful sci-fi B-movie, the chorus members sang in loud, choppy bursts of words, surrounding the Old Woman, who was sitting on a lustrous throne, trapped in a huge pile of textiles. She was going absolutely wild, crying, trying to break free. Nieves, still in his Dog costume but with his mask off, joined the scrum. He face was painted a violent blood red, and he screamed as loudly as he possibly could about wanting to help her in some way. He was absolutely letting loose, just barely in control, howling, a star going supernova.
The opera ended with a prayer. The chorus members stripped off their Pillsbury Doughboy costumes and, standing in their underwear and topless, sang a bewitching Buddhist mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” in Sanskrit over and over. A rare and strange catharsis had by this point gripped the theater. It hung in the air well after the applause finished.