CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera x5, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse

16 04 2011

One of my greatest pleasures over the past few months has been repeat visits to Cyclops: A Rock Opera, which recently transferred to the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse.

I think I’ve scandalized a few of my friends in the theatergoing process. After all, I am probably one of the most subdued people they know: totally conservative in my own lifestyle, although liberal in my beliefs. A bawdy rock opera for mature audiences doesn’t seem quite my style. But I am a mess of paradoxes and an unabashed devotee of Psittacus Productions’ latest theatrical venture. If you haven’t seen Cyclops yet, let me know when you’re going. Because chances are, I’ll join you. Again.

Having seen Cyclops five times since February with several different friends, I have thought a lot about the show itself, as well as its wide range of reception: what I see, what my friends see, what other reviewers see. Provocative on so many levels, Cyclops has opened up an array of discussions beyond the theater for my friends and me. I thought I’d take a short break from studying for quals and write a follow-up post to my original review to consider some of my ever-shifting thoughts on my own experiences of Cyclops in dialogue with my friends’ and fellow critics’ experiences.

Most of my friends react first and foremost to the open sexuality of the rock opera – and since most of my friends are traditional musical theater writers, actors, and producers, they instantly connect this new show to Spring Awakening. The comparison is apt. Cyclops employs a collapsed time frame (Euripides’ satyr play via Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 19th century translation is akin to Spring Awakening‘s collapse of Wedekind’s 1891 play into a contemporary rock musical). Cyclops also embraces the mediation of presentational microphones rather than hidden body mics, which was a radical, stylized choice in Spring Awakening.

I didn’t hate Spring Awakening per se, but my friends know that I have major issues with that show – so they’re shocked that I have such an appreciation for Cyclops. But for me, there are fundamental differences in representations of sexuality between the two.

Spring Awakening made me incredibly uncomfortable when I first saw it. I interned with the Broadway production in summer 2007 … saw it several more times … and started to articulate exactly why I took issue with the musical. I know Spring Awakening has been central to a lot of teens’ and young twenty-somethings’ identity formation; while I can respect that, I think much of the show’s narrative is washed out by the exuberance of the songs. Most frustratingly, Wendla’s encounter with Melchior is no longer a rape (at least textually, although physically it could be argued otherwise) – and Melchior emerges as a steadfast hero of a sexual revolution, rather than the very confused boy of Wedekind’s original play.

How does Cyclops differ? This rock opera is a raucous, bawdy, overtly sexual performance that literally consumes the Carrie Hamilton Theater. On a visceral level, I would expect it to make me more – rather than less – uncomfortable than Spring Awakening. You may even end up with a satyr in your lap! But the difference comes down precisely to the intimate, visceral nature of Cyclops – and to the gaze.

In Spring Awakening, the audience casts a voyeuristic gaze on the staged performance of sexuality just beyond the proscenium arch. The audience peers in on intimate scenes; most of the sex scenes are played realistically, behind the mythic fourth wall. (Maybe the experience would have felt different from the onstage seats … but with realist modes of acting for these moments, I still have my doubts.) This voyeurism is awkward, unsettling, unsolicited, and uncomfortable for me.

In Cyclops, on the other hand, the 99-seat Carrie Hamilton creates a potential reciprocity of the gaze. The audience member is never a protected voyeur; your gaze might just be met by the one-eyed Cyclops. That reciprocity of the gaze undoubtedly makes some audience members more uncomfortable. But paradoxically, I find that reciprocity liberating. It makes me feel less like I am objectifying the actors onstage. Instead, the actors invoke the audience members to enter into a shared Dionysian spirit of the performative, presentational rock opera. There is also a refreshing gender equality to the gaze in this show. Yes, the maenads are scantily clad, thrashing about in their undergarments, but the barechested satyrs play up their sexuality just as much. Cyclops requires the audience members’ willing surrender – even better, their active embrace – of that communal environment.

Once I enter into that Dionysian spirit with the actors, I see not so much the specific performance of sexuality onstage, but simply the performance of a remarkably talented ensemble. One level of my pleasure in Cyclops is seeing the genuine enjoyment of the actor/musicians, their total dedication and investment in this dynamic rock opera in development.

I am also oddly reminded of the opening lines of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

THOMASINA:  Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

SEPTIMUS:  Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

In short, I also take pleasure in Cyclops: A Rock Opera because it is about the (ever-ironic) passion of knowledge. This show saturates the audience in sensational spectacle and sound, but it also offers an intellectual pleasure of decoding the swirling array of cultural references onstage. Even more radically, Cyclops suggests that these visceral pleasures and intellectual pursuits – the body and the mind – are not so easily divided, but intimately bound up with one another.

If you have read the original reviews agglomerated on Bitter Lemons, you’ll notice that each reviewer traces a different genealogy of Cyclops. As I mentioned earlier, Euripides and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation are immediate predecessors, but some critics call the classical-sounding narrative “Shakespearean.” Some critics locate Cyclops‘  musical roots in glam rock, others see musical theater predecessors like Rocky Horror and Hedwig; an opera buff will even hear a nice bit of bel canto in there. The truth is, Cyclops: A Rock Opera calls up all these cultural associations and more. It is a distinctly postmodern collapse of times, places, and genres. I take the “poly” of Polyphemus a little more seriously with each visit. (Among the three new songs at the Carrie Hamilton, we even get some polyrhythms in the catchy chorus of Dionysus’ “Wine Conquers All.”) Each friend that I bring to see Cyclops has a slightly different frame of reference to mediate his or her experience – which always prompts a great post-show discussion.

The transfer from Son of Semele to the Carrie Hamilton has meant a more visceral theatrical experience, a more polished narrative and sound, three fantastic new songs, and amplified roles for the women, among other ongoing transformations that keep improving this new work. Cyclops is a protean show, and it literally feeds off its audience – which brings a different dynamic every night. So I keep returning to Cyclops, allowing myself to be consumed time and time again. Join me for the feast next time.

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22 08 2011
Heavier than … Cyclops: A Rock Opera? « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] with the one-eyed Polyphemus. (I have previously written about it here … and here … and here … and here … with a little overture here.) Based on Euripides’ satyr play, this […]

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