Deus Ex Machina (staged and otherwise)


Of extremes—in kings, madness, singers, theatrical special effects like the deus ex machina, and let’s not forget weather—wherein the blogger continues her musings on the borders between reality and illusion, critics and plays, truth and reality, with a nod to the extremes of weather since she is surrounded by at least a foot and a half of snow. A second Nor-easter in a row in March does not bode well for the welfare of the environment. But it also means a second snow day in a row which, in my case, also translates to a second blog post in a row.

Back to Farinelli And The King.

As I was saying, everything about Claire van Kampen’s (and since March also means Women’s History Month, kudos to the fact that a woman playwright is being produced on Broadway, an event, like the deus ex machina, that happens far too rarely), Farinelli And The King calls the audience’s attention to the fact that it is a PLAY and NOT reality which, paradoxically, makes it that much abler to get at a truth about the nature of madness, power, and music’s ability to heal. Right from the very beginning, when audiences walk into the gorgeous Belasco theater tricked out to appear as an 18th century theater house, complete with lush, red brocade fabric draped over box seats, tiered-seating on the stage, and candles lighting the stage, they see both a truth and an illusion for everyone in the audience, despite the 18th century appearance of the theater is from the 21st century (indeed on the night that I went, the decidedly un-18th century musician and performer, Steve Earle, complete with cowboy boots, jeans, tattoos and long beard was in attendance in one of the stage seats).  In addition, there is no curtain dividing the stage from the audience or creating a fourth wall between the illusion of the stage and the space of the audience. Even before the play begins, then, audiences are being told to think about the divide between players and audience as a porous one. Not only are audience members sitting on the stage, but actors dressed in 18th century Spanish-style costumes interact with the audience members while musicians perform.

Once the play actually begins, the audience is given lots of reminders that the play is the illusion of reality. For example, there is the fact that the character, Farinelli, is performed by two bodies: an actor and a countertenor. Together they create the illusion that they are one and the same because they are wearing the same garb (and the multiple costume changes are fun because they ask you to note the degree to which they “match” and enhance the illusion that two bodies are one). But it is also true that they are NOT one and the same, and if the data I collected eavesdropping on audience members is any indication, it is clear that audiences realize that this is an illusion and a theatrical convention since so many felt the need to mention OUT LOUD (occasionally during the performance, but mostly during intermission) that they recognized that Farinelli is performed by both an actor and a singer (the gentleman behind me, though, noted that he was lost because the actor wasn’t singing so he was still waiting for Farinelli to appear which is a whole other category of illusion). BUT it is NOT the case, as I heard or read surmised by audiences and critics, that this was done because singers can’t act (Davies is decidedly expressive and actorly) or that actors can’t sing (while I don’t know whether Sam Crane can sing a Handel aria, I’ve been to many plays in which actors turn out to also have amazingly powerful singing voices).  Instead, having both an actor and a countertenor perform as Farinelli is pure theater. It dramatizes or externalizes Farinelli’s inner, psychological state since, as he explains, he feels a disassociation between his self and his-self-the-performer who sings. The audience sees this actualized on stage when they see two bodies — the actor or self #1 who mimics half-heartedly the hand motions, stance, and mouthing of “Farinelli” the performer or self #2 who stands in front and off to the side of him.

Illusion continues and is very much a part of the script. Farinelli and the King, in addition to being about kings and madness, is also about theater. Indeed, one of the central plot strands centers around the character, John Rich. Rich, for those of you who don’t know (and I was one of them), was an actual 18th century theatre manager and producer who ran Theatre Royal, Covent Garden when it was first built. He’s in the play because it’s his theater in which Farinelli is performing when Philippe’s wife, Queen Isabella, hears him and comes up with the idea of taking him away from London and to Spain to sing for the king. Rich’s scenes take place backstage during which he complains about the length of the intermission, the audience’s adulation which he advocates when it demonstrates itself monetarily, but not when it results in a ridiculous number of flower bouquets littering his stage. This backstage stuff also sets up the joyously outrageous Act One finale which features Farinelli’s descent from the heavens as a kind of “deus ex machina.”

I loved the Act One finale, featuring the descent from the heavens of Farinelli the singer performing in character as a character from a Handel opera because this 21st century production created a moment that was totally in keeping with the 18th century John Rich’s reputation as a producer of lavish theatrical effects, and with Handel’s operas’ reputations as creating spectacular theater. Just imagine Farinelli’s descent from the heavens, tossing out a rainbow of confetti while singing the Handel aria from Rodelinda, “Fra tempeste funeste a quest’alma.” Who gets to see that kind of 18th century special effect in the 21st century and when you do, why would you ever, ever complain that it’s not real enough?

Give me more of this kind of theater in which I see the wires allowing the angel to descend from the heavens, but because the singer has such an angelic and heavenly voice, I am completely willing and happy to suspend my disbelief in order to believe that what is before me is real and to know deep in my soul that he is an angel.

But wait, I’m not done yet, because there’s still all of Act Two to talk about. Can Act Two possibly do anything more with the reality/illusion divide while still commenting upon the nature of kings, madness and musicians? Stay tuned to still another blog post wherein the blogger tries to answer once and for all “Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?”.

3 thoughts on “Deus Ex Machina (staged and otherwise)

  1. I love the idea of playing off a multitude of selves by having multiple actors. Oddly, it feels more realistic than having an actor act completely out of character when those two selves are being expressed.
    I hate gushing, but I wish I could have seen the 18th century special effects. I love when historical details like that are thrown in. After reading about Victorian theatre, especially at the Lyceum with Henry Irving in productions like Faust where they worked in special effects that were amazing in their time. To today’s audience, they’re nothing compared to CGI effects that are used at the Metropolitan Opera, but I think they’re pretty special, especially in shows where they speak to the historical context and flavor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you identified for me what it is about digital special effects, no matter how special, that leaves me with a ho-hum/not particularly impressed feeling. Because I love special effects that are simple and that tell you they are special effects and ask you to believe in them anyway — like the wires allowing Farinelli to descend from the heavens (or allowing Mary Poppins and Peter Pan to fly in their respective theatrical productions). I just had a debate about this with students because when I showed them a clip from Madama Butterfly, they started laughing in a superior fashion because they could tell that the “child” was a puppet and they could see the puppet handlers dressed in black manipulating the puppet. But that’s exactly what I love about that particular production–being able to see what we already know which is that the child is not a child (and as I pointed out child labor laws would make casting a real baby for the production all but impossible.). And I couldn’t agree more about loving when historical details are recreated for 21st century audiences.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s so odd how in some plays people get that attitude and in other plays, no one bats an eye, such as in the Lion King’s theatre production. No one cares that Zazu and some of the other creatures are puppets, yet a baby is a problem. With Madam Butterfly, I wouldn’t think a puppet would be so out of the norm if you think about Asian theatre conventions and it’s a story set in Asia. Puppets, automatons, and shadow puppets were fairly common during the time period the story is set.

        Liked by 1 person

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