BOTTOM LINE: A new musical theatre piece that’s as endearing as it is weird.
Off-off-Broadway can be a tricky class of theatre and as an audience member you never really know what to expect. On one hand, off-off productions are generally affordable (Kaspar Hauser is just $25). On the other hand, the off-off world usually offers new work, generally of an experimental nature. And with that comes the gamut of quality: self-important crap on one side and creative genius on the other with myriad stops in between. The two most important factors for good off-off theatre are talent and money. Enter: The Flea, a leading off-off company in New York that has both the people and the cash to illuminate their stage. Their latest production, an operetta called Kaspar Hauser, is a wonderful new musical production well worth the price of admission.
Kaspar Hauser, by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney, is an acutely developed, gloriously produced “musical theatre piece” as the press notes say. I’d call it an operetta: it’s almost entirely sung and the musical patterns mimic the drama and conversations as the plot develops. At the same time, it’s not light and farcical like operettas tend to be, but it is upbeat and also maintains some qualities of traditional musical theatre. Okay, fine, we’ll go with “musical theatre piece.”
This new production is based on a true story from the 1800s in Germany. Kaspar Hauser is a boy kept in captivity as a child and released into society when he is 14. Without any interaction and socialization, he emerges a feral child, unable to communicate and without any skills to live on his own. He is embraced by the Germans, though, and becomes a celebrity in his own right. He is given care and nurturing and quickly adapts to his new way of life. The story turns tragic, though, when Kaspar is taken away from the town and locked up again. Turns out he is royalty and his aunt had him removed from the family as a baby to give her own son a chance to gain royal rank without competition from his cousin. Kaspar’s notoriety makes the aunt nervous that his true background will be revealed.
Preston Martin plays Kaspar and his interpretation of this character’s innocence, intrigue and pain is brought out in the most finite of ways. Martin truly becomes Kaspar; his performance is endearing, disturbing, and above all, fully-committed. The chorus of 18 plays all of the other roles, many times as a big group of party guests or villagers. Their voices are tremendous and the orchestrations show off their choral abilities. For such a small space, the amplification is brilliant as well; there is no need to mic anyone, yet the sound carries with perfect balance.
My only beef with Kaspar Hauser is that it desperately needs a bigger performance space. Although it’s well-staged by director and composer Elizabeth Swados and the set is creatively crafted making use of levels and movable pieces, there’s just a lot happening right up in your face. There is certainly an intimacy when presented in this fashion, but ultimately I felt a strong desire to lean back so I could take everything in from one vantage point, rather than swing my head from left to right and back again. The talent, story, music, costumes, light and set are all presented well and would blossom even further with space to move.
But that shouldn’t be a deterrent if you like experimental musical theatre. Kaspar Hauser is an awesome work in many ways and hopefully it will get a life after The Flea’s premiere. With a weird and creepy vibe, it’s refreshing to see new, quality work taking a risk.
Kaspar Hauser plays through March 28th at The Flea Theatre, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7pm and Saturday at 3pm and 7pm. It runs 90 minutes with 1 intermission. Tickets are $25. For a complete performance calendar and tickets, visit www.theflea.org or call 212-352-3101.