Salvador Dali described surrealism as being that force which “destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”
In Francis Poulenc’s surrealist opera “Les Memelles de Tiresias,” the shackles binding traditional views of gender roles, motherhood, and even body image are sprung open by the character of Therese, a woman fed up with being female. Deciding to usurp political power by becoming a man, Therese literally detaches her breasts from her body and proceeds to sprout a full beard and mustache.
Danielle Ryan’s ’06 interpretation of Poulenc’s surrealistic work embraces the ridiculousness of the opera’s premise and runs with it, taking the audience on a frenetically enjoyable ride through the theatrical concept of what it means to have men with maternal instincts.
Part of the success of Ryan’s production is that it does not rely on Poulenc’s story alone: The setting of her production is “Café Zanzibar,” complete with round tables and waiters wielding trays of champagne flutes, an environment which adds an intimate feel. Fairy lights, red draperies, and festive French flags decorate the stage area, making viewers feel like they are in classy restaurant. This simultaneously allows the theatrical action to take place among audience members, an incredibly engaging tool for a sometimes ludicrous work.
In keeping with the cabaret theme, Ryan has lounge acts perform before the Les Mamelles narrative begins. As the lecherously funny emcee, David McIntosh ’07 introduces the female songstresses with a spontaneous comedic flair: He reveals to the audience that Yvette (Kathleen Reeves ’06) sings not for our pleasure but because her father “is the owner of this establishment.” All four women have strong voices, but Nicole Rodriguez MUS ’07 as Veroniq, clad in a fetching black and white cocktail number, touches a profound chord with her emotional delivery.
For those less experienced with the form, opera can be alienating. However, Ryan’s Les Mamelles is constantly appealing. Though the libretto is in French, Ryan cleverly projects supertitles in English which reveal a ludicrous set of lyrics encompassing elephants, refuse heaps, and drowning men, among other subjects.
When Mamelles gets underway, the audience is immediately drawn into Therese’s (Lauren Libaw ’09) plight: Her strong and clear soprano immediately commands a fierce presence. Wielding a broom and a menacing glare, she lambastes men’s arbitary power to order women into the kitchen. Following this tirade, Therese’s masculinization occurs: the breasts of Therese, in keeping with the French-themed setting of the play, are red and blue balloons that float away to the ceiling. Libaw makes no attempt to hide the hilarious attachment of her beard and mustache, and in fact its pronounced phoniness is why it is so entertaining.
The end of this testosterone-fest is a confrontation with Therese’s husband (Sean Leatherbury ’06). Fed up with his antics, she forces him to assume her feminine attire — a becoming blue dress. Needless to say, mayhem ensues when the Gendarme (Avi Feller ’07) mistakes Therese’s husband for, of course, a woman. Both performers can be commended for utilizing their singing for effective characterization: The combination of Feller’s goofy baritone and Leatherbury’s frightened tenor make for a vocal parody that mirrors the physical slapstick happening onstage.
Therese, assuming her new role as powerful dictator, convinces the women of Zanzibar to stop having children altogether. Her husband, moved by the injustice of this sentiment as well as his own economic self-interest, takes it upon himself to make babies — 40,050 in just one day!
One of the most side-splitting parts of the show is the emergence of these babies: dressed in white diapers and undershirts, the members of the ensemble crawl newborn-style into an enormous wrought-iron bed frame — the “crib” for these little monsters. Just as they begin to wail in distress, Leatherbury emerges from the wings, his sleek blue dress traded for a ratty nightgown and red housecoat, wielding a basket with two more baby dolls.
The hilarity of watching Leatherbury attempt to feed and sooth the fussy “babies” as well as justify his prolific fertility — apparently the children are big moneymakers: one infant is even a best-selling novelist — is both charming and ridiculous.
Gender bending aside, the characters all excel with comic skill and timing: Lipaw nails the defiant female role with gusto while Leatherbury plays both the “I’m not a woman!” horror and the “I love motherhood!” joy quite convincingly. Feller’s embodiment of the lumbering cop, complete with horse stick-head (yes, just like the ones you “rode” in elementary school), is so effective one can almost smell the donut grease from the audience. As the foppish dandies inserted into the opera for comic relief, Lacouf (Turner Fishpaw ’07) and Presto (Jonathan Breit ’06) do an Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” style comedy routine, resulting in a death scene that, along with the birth of the babies, may be the funniest moment in the show.
When Therese and her husband are finally reunited, the message of the surrealist opera is clear: Frenchman must “make more babies” to achieve peace. What is not so clear is whether Poulenc intended “Les Mamelles” to be a surrealist dream or just a man’s worst nightmare.