The Metropolitan Opera’s blockbuster production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle may be eliciting pity applause uptown, but a very different new staging of the epic saga in the East Village is earning its performers loud cheers and high-fives from the audience. Performance Lab 115’s “The Ring Cycle (Parts 1-4),” at the Incubator Arts Project through April 29, transfers Wagner’s mashup of German, Scandinavian, and Norse myths from Valhalla to a WWF-style wrestling mat. The opera’s bellowing gods are now the lords of a different ring — outfitted with ‘80s fright wigs and loud costumes of glittering Spandex — who settle their age-old scores in elaborately choreographed fake fights. Improbable though the shift of setting may seem, writers Jeremy Beck and Dave Dalton (who also directs) remain tirelessly faithful to Wagner’s original, and their obvious reverence for the material, combined with an indefatigable cast, make the unconventional adaptation a chest-thumping success.
The production opens as the commander of the gods, a Hulk Hogan-esque Wotan (Jeff Clarke), avoids paying the tag-teaming giants Fasolt and Fafner (Michael Melkovic and Christopher Hirsh) their due for having built his new abode. Instead of his promised sister-in-law he offers them the all-powerful ring made of gold stolen from the sultry Rhine maidens. Fafner accepts the ring, offing his brother in a brutal deathmatch that demonstrates its dangerous power. Wotan spends the rest of the show trying to recover the ring by prodding successive generations of his illegitimate offspring — another common trait of ancient gods and TV wrestling patriarchs — to battle Fafner.
The pumped-up ensemble alternates wonderfully between these moments of comically grandiose confrontation, and surprisingly touching scenes of heartbreak and high drama. As awesome as Wotan’s defeat of the peevish dwarf Alberich (Marty Keiser, in golden boxer shorts and matching cape) may be, his heartache at heaving to sacrifice his own son, Siegmund (Beck), is all the more crushing. Pro wrestlers, just like opera characters, have arena-sized emotions. Along the way are some spectacular battles (fight choreographer Casey Robinson and fights captain Christopher Hirsh merit no small amount of praise), strange but successful choices (Siegfried is portrayed as a pubescent boy scout and played by Seth Powers, who’s well over six feet tall), clever stylistic flourishes (such as Fafner’s lucha libre-like dragon costume), and plentiful acknowledgments of just how ridiculous the source material really is: “To Needlehole! That’s what it’s called.”
In slimming the Ring Cycle down to two and a half delicious hours while juicing it up with spectacular battles, Performance Lab 115 has managed what so few modernizations of myths pull off: to express the gods’ acutely human emotions while conveying the overblown scale of the conflicts they cause. Put in the ring with most conventional productions, this staging of Wagner’s cycle would surely emerge victorious, championship belt in hand.
To see images from Performance Lab 115's production of "The Ring Cycle (Parts 1-4)" click the slide show.