Renegade Opera’s final performance of Adam’s Run–a contemporary farce of an opera (and I use the term ‘farce’ in its finest dramatic and literary sense)–took place at a cute, tiny, hole-in-the-wall venue by the name of Shaking the Tree Theatre on 9th and Grant in Southeast Portland. After entering through a beautiful courtyard garden under the un-seasonally hot September sun, I took my seat practically in the midst of the colorful, janky set that had on the one side a cheap morning news show vibe, and I wondered at the other half of the set, which at first I took for a clapboard church under a vaguely ominous wooden cross, but which was later revealed to be an ark. (Yes, that type of ark.)
The orchestra was sized perfectly for the music and venue: a string trio, percussion battery, saxophone, keyboards, electric guitar, and acousmatic sound effects coming from speakers above the band, all conducted by Renegade co-founder Danielle Jagelski. As the music began in somber, descending motifs that immediately contrasted with the humorous set, I asked myself “what does Adam’s Run mean?” I was expecting a character named Adam, but there was none. The pondering was soon cast aside as mezzo Lisa Neher took the stage as Dana Daring, a TV producer of some sort, expounding on a tragic incident that resulted in the deaths of the Existentialist Weather Woman Julie Shore and the Environmental Evangelist the Reverend Billy Noble.
Whether due to budget constraints, an artistic decision, or both, foregoing supertitles is always a tricky proposition, even when presenting an opera in (presumably) the audience’s native tongue. Especially without a copy of the libretto at hand, it makes absolute crystal clarity of diction of paramount importance, otherwise the story is lost. Despite an oft-monosyllabic exposition, I had a tricky time following the introduction at first, but was able to piece together that something tragic had happened leading to the deaths mentioned above, and it was soon clear that the story would be told in flashbacks. Daring introduced the first flashback as follows: “It began as everything–with the image, the show, the screen.”
Soprano Maddie Tran took the stage as Shore, while bass-baritone Quinton Gardner sang in the Ark. The libretto by
Baynard Woods (read about why Woods crosses out his name here) showcased how each character glories in the impending climate apocalypse; each has their own agenda with the end goal being the same: ratings, followers and an audience, even as humanity shuffles the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Shore sang gleefully about the razing of neighborhoods due to rising tides, and smiled as she speculated on the manner of death for the 232 killed in a flooded subway in New York: were they drowned, or electrocuted? “It is a symbol of our lostness,” she sang at one point, while Noble ominously intones “It was the wrath of a righteous god, just as it was in days of yore.” (A further vignette about “200 dead in Ore-a-gone” drew a black-hearted laugh.)
Daring interpolated herself numerous times throughout: sometimes clearly placed in the timeline of the beginning of the show (i.e., narrating a flashback) and sometimes in the show’s present-tense as Shore’s exasperated producer, warning her not to nettle Noble and his unstable followers. At one point she says something about “the myth of Jack-O’-Lantron,” a fascinating bit of world-building that was never explained–it was precisely its mystery that gave a sense of depth and background to this fictional rendering of our world.
As the story progresses, Noble and unhinged alt-right militia leader Rodney Richards (a self-effacing, electric-guitar-playing Matt Rowning) hatch a plot to stage a false-flag attack on on the ark and blame it on a vaguely defined ‘other’ (liberals, progressives, atheists, existentialists, who knows?) But before this can take place, Shore and Noble meet in person, and begin a bit of philosophical bantering. After the back and forth they begin to fall in love (or at least lust; it seems hard to say whether one or the other or both.)
When they go their separate ways, Shore reminisces about their conversation, and laments that she is strongly attracted to him despite him believing in the opposite of everything she stands for, and starts to wonder what he’s like in bed: “How can a man believe that sex is not good, and that to love is not to fuck?” Noble meanwhile gets down on his knees and engages in a lengthy, prayerful soliloquy, which was for the most part too long and musically uninteresting, although his bewailing the temptations thrust upon him by his “blue balls” was a hilarious bit of shtick. Ultimately, the false flag attack backfires and kills both Shore and Noble, shortly after they disappear into the confines of the ark. One could only hope they were able to get it on before the ark blew up.
Woods’ libretto was engaging: if at times a bit philosophically overbearing for my tastes, it nonetheless humanized all the main characters in a satisfying way. At first it smacked a bit of ‘both sides-ism,’ but most of the sardonic laughs were clearly at the expense of the right-wingers, and when it gets down to the end of the world, who is to blame is ultimately not so important. Which was one of the main themes after all. At one point Daring expounds thusly: “The battles are all for naught, yet always they must be fought.”
Ruby Fulton’s score was accessible without being trite: there were moments of Glass-esque repetitive motifs, and emotionally direct and engaging themes that highlighted the seriousness of the end of the world, underlaying the farcical treatment by the libretto in a vital emotional contrast to it. There were hilarious moments (like short commercial breaks) wherein fin du monde pharmaceuticals were hawked, and bags of “drugs” were thrown at the audience: “Zantax,” for instance, a combination antacid and benzodiazapene.
Tran’s Shore was delightful: insouciant, martini-chugging and obstreperous: “If they no longer love me, we will lose our viewers to the Lord!” she bemoans at one point. The production hung in large part on her charisma and her very fine singing, which displayed a pointed squillo that never ran to the shrill. She conveyed a shallow, fame-obsessed character with just a hint of something deeper underneath: a longing to connect with another human being before it all well and truly goes to hell. This need for connection was shared by Gardner’s Noble. The smug satisfaction of his Reverend was fun to watch, his baritone fulsome and ringing. Yet there was definitely an emptiness in him too, as he conspires to cause the death of his own followers and frame others for socio-political gain.
In this country of ours–where, in their quest for ultimate power, the Christo-fascists openly eschew democracy and even basic shared humanity, and the oligarchs still pretend that climate change isn’t as bad as it seems as the world drowns and burns–it takes quite a bit of skill to take all this and turn it into a laugh without entirely losing the gravity of the subject matter. No whistling past the graveyard this; it was as if, with Mt. Doom spewing flame and the world exploding around them, instead of saying “I’m glad you’re with me Sam, here at the end of all things,” Frodo had said “Hey Sam–pull my finger.”
That’s what this reminded me of. And “Adam’s Run”–what does it mean? I wondered that at first, but considering that the opera was basically a swansong for humanity, the answer would seem obvious. We have indeed had a good run, but maybe it’s just about over.