by SOPHIE KERMAN and ANNA ROSENSWEIG
With a subtitle like, “An edible opera touring to a community garden near you,” we didn’t necessarily expect to come away from a performance of Alcina’s Island: A Picnic Operetta wondering if it might just be the best thing we’ll see all season. Staged in gardens across the Twin Cities metro area, this adaptation of a 1735 opera by Georg Fredric Handel is anything but stodgy. Under the direction of Scotty Reynolds, the company (Mixed Precipitation) creates a spaghetti western by fusing the original baroque score with an old-time trucker vibe. Enough to scare you off? There’s also a five-course sampling menu, provided by chef Nick Schneider at various opportune moments throughout the show.
What’s so amazing about the production is how well all of these elements come together, and this is largely due to the company’s ability to balance the ridiculousness of their concept with their total commitment to an artistic vision. They set the tone early, with an audience briefing that reminds us to sit close together on the provided blankets – “like mushrooms, not like dandelions” – and to remember that this is opera, and not to be put off by the Italian. By laying the groundwork early, the company was able to make the work accessible without ever needing to talk down to the audience.
The story centers around Ruggiero, or “Ruddy” (Jameson Jon Baxter) a trucker who finds himself enchanted by Alcina (Laura Hynes Smith), a truck stop waitress with a history of spellbinding wayward men. But the plot is secondary to the cast’s formidable singing and storytelling abilities. While the ensemble blended well as a whole, each company member brought unique talents to the group. The two truck stop sorceresses (Smith and Lauren Drasler, playing Alcina’s hilariously straight-talking sister) were equally good at enchanting the audience with opera-house worthy arias. And some of the supporting characters – Grant Schumann as a young kitchen hand and Paulino Brener as a traveling cable guy transformed into a lion (yes, that is printed in the program) – were invariably charming. The musicians switched between genres with ease, and Handel’s instrumentation was shockingly compatible with country classics by the likes of George Jones (“I’ve Got Heartaches By The Number”).
As talented as the entire cast was, this performance could not have been done in a traditional theater space. The actors, adorned with verdant headpieces, interacted with their environment in ways that only rarely seemed contrived. The use of props was a clever supplement to the natural surroundings. In particular, the subtitles deserve special recognition. Written on dish trays, costume pieces and banners, the text never burdened the comedy. For a play with so many elements, none of those elements was ever reduced to gimmick.
The proverbial icing on the cake was, of course, the food – all fresh and garden-inspired. With lines like, “Have a smoky zucchini jerky and think of the one you love,” the company doesn’t just feed the audience, but integrates the food with the comedy and the setting. Part of the pleasure is in imagining what will come around on the next tray, and we won’t give anything away except to say that it’s all delicious.
It’s all too common to get tickets for an adaptation of a classic work, only to find an uncomfortable clash between self-seriousness and hokey modernization. Mixed Precipitation has avoided all that by blending their source material with their country aesthetic in a way that creates something entirely new. Somehow, operetta seems completely at home with organic produce and road warriors. Dinner theater is rarely ever good because of the same strange combination of formality and distraction that makes picnic operetta the must-see end to your summer.