In a world where you can do everything from landing your dream job to finding love at no cost except for agreeing to document and broadcast your travails on national television, is it still business (or matrimony) as usual? Do the rules of attraction still hold after all the artful pans, heart-rending video montages, and informative voice-overs? Opera Spanga’s “Buwalsky: A Road Opera,” whose story is influenced by the heavy presence of television and the question of what effect media pervasiveness has on its audience, tests these questions in the span of a two act, detective-thriller style multimedia musical.
The show, which is making its American debut at the Yale Repertory Theater after its inception and world premiere in the Netherlands, is played by a simple cast of five. An orchestra supplements what is arguably the sixth player of the production — the television. Throughout “Buwalsky,” characters watch, turn on and off, and even “jump into” the action that takes place on the screen, mostly in a phony but amusingly realistic 24-hour soap opera called “Lada.” The original film clips, shot for the production by director Corina van Eyck, are entertaining in their cheeky adherence to the genre and are convincing by virtue of their realistic costumes and grainy quality (think MTV’s now-defunct sex drama “Undressed” or a Univision soap opera).
The show “Lada” revolves around the titular heroine (mezzo Klara Uleman), a curvaceous redhead who enjoys a sort of love/hate relationship with the exploitation her beauty and femininity bring. Lada’s boyfriend, Franco, played by baritone Charles Alvez da Cruz, is a faithful beau in the tradition of Colin Farrell, who, despite his attachments, is happy to use his good looks or even his tongue and wandering hands to get what he wants. The two are partners in crime to the end, but their involvement in wayward activities forces them to be perpetually on the lam from the Inspector, tenor Wil van der Meer. Buwalsky, a sad-looking old man who finds solace in immersing himself in the fictional world of Lada, is played by baritone Peter Michailov. Rounding out the cast is the appropriately named Everywoman (soprano Jasmin Besig), who, thanks to the powers of disguise imparted to her by acrylic wigs, alternately plays Buwalsky’s salt-and-pepper-haired boss Mrs. Johannssen; a blonde nurse whose come-hither short skirt makes her look more ready for trick-or-treating than tracheotomy; and a raven-haired, grumpy motel-keeper whose heart is softened by a clothes-for-cunnilingus arrangement with Buwalsky.
The set of “Buwalsky” is very effective. A humongous, centrally-located flat-screen television allows for the soap opera clips to be broadcast in precise detail. Two much smaller screens flank the central one and project reflected images — sometimes standing in for appropriate props such as a shelf of liquor at the bar, sometimes simply providing ambience, as the projection of a decollete, prostrate Lada that appears in scenes from Buwalsky’s everyday life. Generally, the props and set design work very well for the production, and the gag whereby characters run off the stage and appear onscreen in the filmed footage seconds later is quite amusing. The trick also bolsters one of the play’s salient themes — that is, the control of television over the hero and heroine of “Lada,” and whether or not they can “break the contract” together and stay together for “longer than the length of a commercial,” as they sing.
But while the organic elements of “Buwalsky” work well, it’s the very plot that falls flat. You feel incomplete and disillusioned, as if you’re watching the silent and static-y season finale of your favorite show on a channel not included in the cable package. This unpleasantness stems from the fact that the characters of “Lada,” in their great integrity to the unique genre of low-budget popular soap operas, are simply unsympathetic. For instance, it is funny to laugh at Lada and Franco’s relentless coquetry towards accessory characters, but as soon as the farce is moved off-screen and on-stage, the effect of Franco lustily pouncing on the nurse right on top of Lada’s hospital bed as our heroine is recovering from severe blood loss is jarring. Similarly, Lada’s singing to Buwalsky about how she appreciates his holding her “not like the others” while she pines away for Franco confuses viewers. By interweaving faithful recreations of modern media, this opera comes to embody all the transience and fickleness that it appears to rail against in its kitschy filmed spoof-clips. Having forfeited its ability to impart a lasting moral or sociological lesson on its audience, “Buwalsky” is reduced to a beautiful but insubstantial swirl of perfectly timed entrances and catchy theme songs.
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