FULL DISCLOSURE: the Stage Manager of The Ring Cycle, Lindsey Miller, is an Ensemble Member at BackStage Theatre Company, where I serve on the board.

Now, onto the story at hand…

If you are of a certain recent generation, you might love to throw around the word epic to describe a joke or a pratfall or a night of debauchery. If that sounds familiar, I wish you would have seen The Ring Cycle at The Building Stage. This, my friends, is an epic.

There were heroes, giants, dwarves, a mystical ring, water nymphs, dragons, gods, a magic helmet, Valkyries, love, lust, incest, demigod-on-human action, sacrifice, revenge and loads of ancient Norse mythology. We also had 19th century romanticism, the rise of man and the decay of the gods, tinged with a fair bit of Wagnerian racism… I’ll get to that.

This might have been the quickest 6 hours I’ve spent in a theater. That’s no doubt because The Building Stage condensed 15+ hours of Wagner’s opera into approximately 4 1/2 hours of stage performance. Cutting the orchestra and the singing helps, but still, there is an awful lot of story to get through in one day. Telling the whole thing so expediently requires a brisk pace and a hugely energetic ensemble. Check and check.

Beyond story, The Building Stage also brought circus arts and puppetry. There seemed to be a fair bit of Redmoonian influence at play. As the environment for watery nymph Rhinemaidens and tree-sheltered woodbirds (Sarah Scanlon, Lindsey Dorcus and Lucy Carapetyan), aerial silks were an elegant insinuation of Nature, while a rather odd 3-person puppet of Erda, a Gaia archetype, offered a brambly unkempt counterpoint. I found the battle with the dragon Fafnor exceptionally clever, with the massive head projected in shadow on one full theater wall, and the dragon’s tail as shadow on the opposite.

But the moment I was waiting for, and one that did not disappoint, was the Ride of the Valkyries. I was a little concerned going in that they might not do it justice, since Wagner’s massive orchestra was replaced by a 4-piece rock band, down to 3 musicians during the extension week when I saw it. And yes, as you would expect, the aural punch of this extremely famous leitmotif was… not too punchy. However, the hint of the piece offered by the band underscored some lovely puppetry of the Valkyrie mounts bounding through the sky. The final bit, where the eight ride together onstage in formation, actually invoked a bit of awe–all the more impressive since this really just consisted of eight actors operating rather small horse puppets. But that is a perfect example of how this show worked. The company engaged itself in story-telling, giving us enough skeletal spectacle to ignite our imaginations to complete the special effects. This didn’t stop me from picturing Elmer Fudd in opera drag on a few occasions… “Oh Bwuunhilde, you so wuuuvewy!” But this is hardly their fault.

Thematically, the Ring Cycle emphasizes the rising freedom of humans to oppose the will of the gods. The most interesting character arc, and the only one to traverse all four parts of the cycle, is Wotan’s (Chris Pomeroy) conflicted desire to see his beloved human progeny (like all the classical alpha gods, ladies love cool Wotan) rise and break free from fate and law, which he himself embodies and enforces. However, his inability to tolerate such free will in his best beloved daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde (Darci Nalepa) precipitates his own tragic undoing.

Given this theme of creative rebellion, one wonders why The Building Stage adaptors felt bound to maintain Wagner’s racism. The heroic human sibling-lovers Siegmund (Nick Vidal) & Sieglinde (Daiva Bhandari), and their child Siegfried (Vidal again) romp in ruddy Teutonic beauty. All the humans are, in fact, images of the gods, played by the same actors (Vidal, Bhandari and Pat King).

At the shallow end of the gene pool, the dwarves Alberich (Wm. Bullion) and Mime (Bill O’Connor) are devious, stooped, greedy, hateful, and frequently described as “black.” Of course we are familiar with common references to “black-hearted” or “black-souled” villians, not meaning people of African descent. But it seems strangely naïve to gloss over such a potent word when it is used to make negative judgments on an “inferior” race. Most Wagner critics understand the dwarves to be problematic anti-Semitic portrayals. That is less obvious in this production, but they are still clearly sub-human, here, and without nobility. The giants (played by the same actors as the dwarves) are reliable workers, but stupid, and easily tricked out of their pay by the noble Wotan. Perhaps it would have been an artistic error to change this–much as The Merchant of Venice with a sympathetic Shylock fails to click. But so much else was freely adapted here… it is hard to see what might have been lost to deracination. If he weren’t flaunting his racial superiority over his adoptive father Mime, perhaps Siegfried might have seemed like less of a dick.

Despite this, The Ring Cycle truly excelled as a piece of communal narrative and spectacle. Simply being in one theater for 6 hours encourages a sense of bonding with fellow audience members. But the picnic dinner, on the set with the cast between parts 2 and 3, really invited the whole audience into the work, literally. It was great.

I got my ticket on Hottix for $20 plus service charges. You can read my TwentyDollarPlays price policy here. I really wish, in retrospect, that I’d paid full price, since, really, I saw two long plays or four short ones. And since, really, this was a very rare sort of theater experience that I feel privileged to have shared. Paying full price would have required saving a couple weeks of my budgeted allowance, and I saw it on the very last weekend, so this wasn’t possible. But I do wish I’d planned ahead.