2019-20 Review: Mother Goose
Felix Jarrar’s Subversive Fairytale Delivers Plenty of F-Bombs, HilarityBy Chris Ruel
(Credit: Orlando Mendiola)
There were plenty of F’s— High F’s, Low F’s, and Middle F’s—in composer/librettist’s Felix Jarrar’s “Mother Goose: A Drag Comic Chamber Opera,” and, I’m not speaking of notes on a staff; I’m talking about the f-word. Jarrar’s latest creation and collaboration with director Bea Goodwin was crass and vulgar; in short, I loved it.
“Mother Goose” was a brilliant, over-the-top send-up of opera and queer culture. The show poked fun at and subverted hundreds of years of high art and decades of LBGTQ+ tropes with riotous camp humor. With characters such as a drag queen Fairy Godmother who, instead of carrying around a magic wand, is armed with a magic whip, and a libretto featuring an extended duckling death scene rivaling that of Violetta’s, there was little Jarrar held sacred.
And that was refreshing.
Having been the third production by Goodwin that I’ve seen, her enormous talent is simply undeniable as she swings from the utterly serious to the exceedingly comedic, with equal aplomb. But like any director, Goodwin needs something to work with, and she got it in full measure with Jarrar’s music and libretto, both of which were stellar.
At the end of the evening, I was left wondering—in the best possible way—what it was I had just experienced. The show was a mishmash; part straight play—no pun—part opera, and part drag show. With so many disparate pieces to the puzzle, the whole thing could have come crashing down, but the shtick stuck and for 75 minutes, the show reminded the audience that opera is a magnificently diverse art form in which risks like “Mother Goose” should be taken.
Freedom of Expression
“Mother Goose” is a fairy tale gone bonkers. Leonora Goosling is the proprietor of Mother Goose’s Inn and Suites, an establishment where everyone gets a happy ending. (Queue the first in a slew of thinly veiled double entendres.) Leonora has her hand in several business ventures, including a hair weave salon, and a record label. When Princess Talia (Sleeping Beauty), is kidnapped and held hostage by the evil witch, Gnat. Mother Goose, along with her sidekicks, the tantrum-prone Oscar the Fox, and Princess Elesbian, liberate the beauty with a kiss from her true love, a kiss delivered by Elesbian.
Gnat, seeking his revenge, poisons the pop star diva, Ugly Duckling before she can quack out her yet-to-be-released single during the wedding of Elesbian and Sleeping Beauty. Yet, on the day of the nuptials, the couple is kidnapped by Gnat following the long, slow death of Duckling.
The unhappy couple is taken to the Gingerbread House on Mulberry Lane where Gnat plans to dine on their flesh. But Mother Goose, Oscar the Fox, and the pot-smoking, perma-grinning hotel maid save the lovers from certain doom. Elesbian marries Sleeping Beauty before the show concludes with a glorious send-up of “Les Miserables” under a rainbow banner.
Contemporary opera needs more of this type of fare to create a balance between 21st-century opera seria and opera buffa. Though the show might cause many to blush or the opera cognoscenti to huff about the state of the art form these days due to the free-flowing use of coarse language, Jarrar’s work wasn’t devoid of meaning; he cooked this goose with a dash of social commentary, but it was subtle and light—maybe you caught it, or maybe it drifted over your head as you held your stomach, doubled-over with laughter. Either way, a good time was had by all, and that’s what I believe was Jarrar’s central goal in this experimental show.
Furthermore, I never got the sense that Jarrar was playing the petulant artist, giving the middle finger to the establishment just because he could, or that what played out on stage was shock opera—if there is such a thing. Rather, “Mother Goose” challenged the audience to take a step back and find the abundance of humor that exists in the art form, and in queer culture.
In other words, let’s not take this whole opera thing, or ourselves too seriously; there’s enough weighty stuff going on in the real world that we’ll need to deal with the moment we leave the theater.
It needs to be stressed that “Mother Goose” is an ensemble work, and the entire cast had moments in which they sparkled. But, the evening belonged to three outstanding performers: bass-baritone Jonathan Harris in drag as Fairy Godmother, mezzo-soprano Allison Gish as Leonora Goosling, and mezzo-soprano Eugenia Forteza as Ugly Duckling.
Harris kicked things into gear acting as both a character and the narrator. He strode out on stage in a floral mini dress, fishnets, and heels. Half-way across the stage, he took off one of his pain-inducing shoes and flung it in the direction of Jarrar sitting behind the piano. With a well-timed and unexpected f-bomb, the veneer of opera as high art reserved for the snooty was jettisoned along with the shoe.
From here, Harris’ Fairy Godmother, took on a Tonio-like role, speaking directly to the audience, inviting them to close their eyes and take a journey to a land far away. It was a good idea to listen because Fairy Godmother wielded not a magic wand, but a magic whip, a miniature pink riding crop, which was used to enchant the audience as they began their stay at Mother Goose’s Inn where the endings are always happy.
Acting-wise, Harris was the consummate drag queen; sarcasm dripped from his lips, his eye rolls were flawless in execution, and his interactions with his nemesis Gnat, quite the queen himself, were hilariously catty. At times, Fairy Godmother simply sat, watching the swirling chaos, breathing heavy sighs of exasperation, and shaking his head at the nonsensical antics of his fellow fairy tale characters until he too was pulled into the action. Gnat had stolen the magic whip and cursed Mother Goose, Oscar the Fox, the hotel maid, and Fairy Godmother with a spanking spell. Yes, a spell that made the quartet slap each other’s bottoms.
The joke here, besides the literal slapstick, was that they had to get the whip back if they were to save their behinds (Of course, that wasn’t the word used in the libretto).
Harris, one of many of Goodwin’s go-to artists in the cast, sang with a deep, rumbling tone that made his turns on the stage all the more humorous, and, though he mostly spoke during the performance, Harris’ singing displayed the strength and power of his pipes that was as powerful as his comedic acting.
The Serial Entrepreneur & A Crazy Diva
Mezzo Allison Gish’s Leonora Goosling was no simple innkeeper; she owned most of the local businesses. With the rescue of Princess Talia (Sleeping Beauty) by true love’s kiss and her impending marriage to Princess Elesbian (disguised as a man), Leonora informs Talia that she must get a hair weave for no other apparent reason other than needing a customer to fill a chair in her salon. An unintended humorous moment arose when Sleeping Beauty’s newly installed weave fell unexpectedly from her head. Both Gish and soprano Rebecca Richardson, (Sleeping Beauty), concealed laughter as the audience enjoyed the unpredictability of live theater. Leonora was also Ugly Duckling’s record producer, and though no album had ever been released, Duckling enjoyed great success as a social media influencer.
Gish’s commanding stage presence, strikingly rich voice and an innate sense of comedic timing made her a delight to watch as she did her best to run her enterprises and corral the ragtag group surrounding her.
Anyone who has been around the block with standard repertory opera knows there are typically three ways to die: stabbed, poisoned, or tuberculosis. Stabbings tend to end things on the quicker side while poisoning and tuberculosis allow the character to linger and sing at least one or two more arias or duets. Jarrar pokes fun at the operatic death scene, granting Ugly Duckling a literal swan song.
The poor bird, played by mezzo-soprano Eugenia Forteza, inhaled a poisonous popper handed to her by the evil witch Gnat. It takes Duckling a decent amount of time to shed her mortal coil, before arising one final time to end it all on a high note—pun entirely intended. Duckling’s demise was accompanied by a solo cello playing a ridiculously drawn out dirge so lengthy it led to Mother Goose intentionally breaking character as she waited for the cellist to put down the bow. Though used for comedic purposes, the haunting solo played beautifully by Jacob Nordlinger was a highlight of Jarrar’s score.
Forteza displayed solid acting chops, relishing her role as the overly precious pop diva who had no real friends but a lot of social media followers. Her voice sparkled like the sequins on Duckling’s skirt and Forteza’s antics as the doomed duckling brought out plenty of laughs. She, like Harris and Gish, had her comedic timing down pat.
Marques Hollie’s Gnat sparred convincingly with Harris’ Fairy Godmother to see who could act like the bigger diva. Their interactions on stage were some of the evening’s more uproarious scenes. Fairy Godmother, after fighting and prevailing over Gnat for the control of the magic whip, sat on the witch’s back and used the crop as intended, delivering smack after smack upon his adversary’s hindquarters.
Each character, save for the inn’s maid, had a chance to showcase their voice. Hollie’s smooth, robust tenor was solid, even after delivering a substantial number of lines. Jumping between speaking and singing after long strings of dialogue is taxing, but Hollie managed admirably.
Mezzo-soprano Nicholle Bittlingmeyer’s light mezzo impresses with its subtlety and she has the skill to blend in with voices that could easily overpower her own.
Soprano Rebecca Richardson brought her sumptuous lyricism to Princess Talia/Sleeping Beauty. Whenever the title “princess” precedes a character’s name, it’s easy to believe that what will come out when it’s time to sing will have a certain weightless quality, but Richardson breaks that notion in half with her sturdy richness.
I wish I got to hear more from soprano Victoria Davis, but her role as Princess Elesbian didn’t call for much singing. What I did hear from her as the show wound down into its final chorus was exciting, striking, and delightful.
Actress Mikayla Petrilla was one of my favorites as the pot-smoking maid at Mother Goose’s Inn. Petrilla had little, if any, lines, and she didn’t sing. I know that might sound strange, but as the maid, she was ever-present, high as a kite and engrossed in whatever was going on around her. She played the quintessential happy stoner who met chaos with a permanent smile. Her actions, expressions, and overall stage presence were charming in the extreme and put her on equal footing with the rest of the cast in terms of overall performance.
Just because Jarrar went for laughs doesn’t mean he didn’t imbue his drag opera with some social commentary. Cast members, when not performing, sat in chairs arranged in a semicircle around center stage. As they waited, they texted, snapped selfies, and played games on their phones. They were self-absorbed, checked out, and waiting for their turn to be in the spotlight. We’re all a bit guilty in going about our lives in a similar fashion at one time or another.
As the show closes, nearly all the characters pull off their wigs or rip out their weaves while some—like Sleeping Beauty and Mother Goose—come out of the closet. The motley crew of characters support and show solidarity with one another in their wacky fairyland; it’s an ideal we desire to see more of in the real world. Opera, whether it’s loaded with foul or flowery language, holds the mirror up to us.
With “Mother Goose” we see that we’re all a bunch of lovable misfits, and that’s a beautiful (insert f-word here) thing.