by MIRA REINBERG
Long before Elizabethan comedies of error and late medieval or early modern French farce there was a genre of popular comedy that we recognize as the picaresque novel or “story-telling.” The earliest and rare example of such a picaresque tale is a second-century AD novel by Lucius Apuleius, entitled The Golden Ass, the only novel in Latin known to have been preserved in its entirety. These folk dramas are irreverent in nature, threading mishaps and implausible situations to convey the absurdities of human existence in a manner that is hilarious despite its sometimes violent and sexually explicit gestures.
In her adaptation of the novel, and under her direction, Liz Neerland of Nimbus Theatre has refreshingly brought the picaresque novel alive in a brisk and dynamic production of the trials and tribulations of the protagonist, Lucius, whose desire to experiment with the power of magic induces an unforeseen transformation into a jackass.
The figure of the donkey as stable, loyal, adroit, and keen companion is the ultimate guise for an omnipotent narrator who mingles with low-class folk – conniving thieves, innocent maidens, drudges, and capricious Roman masters. Joel Raney plays a sprightly Lucius turned ass, whose gestures and sounds are crafty reactions to the absurdity of the actions humans around him tend to make, as well as the dismal circumstances that surround and determine their lot in life. The ensemble, in perpetual motion, changing roles and enacting a variety of characters, take earnest and evident pleasure in playing the sometimes violent and lewd, sometimes compassionate misfits among whom Lucius the ass circulates.
The small stage at Nimbus is parsimoniously decorated with panels depicting pastoral (and medieval-looking) scenes from the countryside. The actors pace between center-stage where the donkey’s adventures unfold to the stage corner in which, gathered around a bonfire, Lucius the storyteller recounts these adventures to a group of curious if doubting campers. It is there that at times the production falters before the goal it has set: perhaps because the original novel is spread over eleven books, recounting detailed versions of Lucius’ adventures interlaced with a retelling of Greek myths, that the attempt to condense them into ninety some minutes on a small stage against a sparse set interferes with the intended pace of the play and breaks some of the colorful and magical impact of The Golden Ass.
But then, when in the twenty-first century are we as spectators – and actors in a play for that matter – ever asked to follow a story that incorporates multiple genres in its production? This is a play of comedy, travel, adventure, the fantastic and the magical, horror and romance. Multi-genre theatre is not uncommon in productions intended for and by children. And although The Golden Ass is not for children, it does tap into a certain child-like wonder that can accompany the spinning out of a good story. Indeed, in its literal playfulness, the Nimbus production conveyed the pleasure that children would derive from seeing or even participating in it, children who have the capacity to be drawn into a story and be engulfed in its telling. This production is an invitation to join our ancient comrades in their search to understand society’s injustices even while recognizing the delight of telling stories and the need to mobilize the supernatural in the pursuit of interpreting our motives.
The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, adapted and directed by Liz Neerland. At Nimbus Theatre, 1517 Central Ave NE Minneapolis, MN. April 28, 2012 – May 20, 2012. Phone: 612-548-1379 email: firstname.lastname@example.org