Buntport's Tommy Lee Jones Goes to Opera Alone is brilliantly original
Buntport Theater Company has always had a creative way with music: The ensemble's choices for openings, accompaniment and intermissions are spot-on, and some of its shows have included fruitful collaborations with local musicians. So when two Buntporters spotted tough-guy movie star Tommy Lee Jones standing in line at the Santa Fe Opera for tickets to La Bohème, it got their speculative juices going. The result is a brilliantly original piece of theater called Tommy Lee Jones Goes to Opera Alone, with a large puppet Tommy Lee Jones at its center.
This puppet is around five feet tall, pale and thin-limbed, with imposing eyebrows and large, highly articulated hands, courtesy of Denver puzzle-box master Kagen Schaefer (robotics teacher Corey Milner helped rig those hands for action). But if the hands are eloquent, the mouth is permanently shut tight. Four actors, all wearing black suits and masks, provide the animation: Brian Colonna works the head, Evan Weissman and Erin Rollman the tricky hands, and, sitting almost completely still, his features obscured, Eric Edborg serves as the puppet's voice.
The action is set in a coffee shop where Tommy Lee Jones goes regularly for coffee and pie. He has a longstanding teasing and affectionate relationship with waitress Jane — Hannah Duggan, the only troupe member who gets to be an actual, freestanding human being. Jones wants to talk to us, the audience, and he has a lot to talk about: cowboy boots, movies, his background, how human speech evolved (and the price we paid for it) and, of course, opera — the grandest use to which those evolved voices can be put. He shares his ideas about the quality of Elvis's singing, Puccini ("sincere and at the same time counterfeit") and live performance ("You are always seeing...something that will never happen again"). He's particularly fascinated by Turandot, the opera Puccini left unfinished at his death. Periodically, he activates a gold pocket watch from which arias emanate.
Buntport has always made a point of bridging — or rather, completely ignoring — the line between high and low art, so it's no surprise that this production humanizes and demystifies opera. Tommy Lee Jones explains that the melodies of many popular songs come from opera, and shows that opera belongs to everyone — him, us, and irrepressible waitress Jane, who feels free to sing along and contribute her own ideas about plot.
Puppets have been in Buntport's DNA from the beginning: In this company's hands, anything from a stuffed bear to a car antenna can become human. And puppets also hold a strong fascination for the rest of us, from bloodthirsty horror-movie mannequins to child-mesmerizing Muppets. Much of the play's meaning is imagistic rather than verbal, and there's something deeply evocative in the three black-clad puppet manipulators, who look sometimes like nurturers and sometimes like bringers of death. The puppet isn't realistic, and yet by the end of the evening, it has acquired some strange semblance of life. Which means you have to ponder what it signifies when a man's body parts assert emotional and physical independence, when his right hand is at odds with his head. No wonder the poor man has dreams in which he's trying to fit his boot over his ears. And when these figures desert the puppet to fold in on himself, we feel real sadness.
There's a sense of continuous recursion, boxes within boxes, stacked Russian dolls. At one point, Jane mirrors the action by staging her own mini-puppet show, using a ketchup bottle, a fork that morphs from a character in Turandot into a pie-eating utensil, a syrup bottle. Turandot supposedly reflects events in Puccini's own life, and the plot of the opera in turn gets re-enacted here — in a very unexpected way.
The acting is terrific, reflecting the company members' deep commitment to the work and each other. Duggan, in particular, adds irresistible sparks of life and humor with every entrance.
Part of Buntport's mission is to make art transparent. There's no attempt at illusion or concealment: All the transitions and manipulations happen right in front of your eyes. Tommy Lee Jones is, among other things, a meditation on the process of creation, the relationship between artist and audience, and the fact that a great work of art changes over time and is therefore never finished.
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