At ACT, a tacky Texas sendup of Wagner's 'Ring'

'Das Barbecu' is a lively show with an excellent cast and direction. Too bad it has more fun spoofing Texas than skewering Wagner.
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Richard Ziman as Wotan in ACT's <i>Das Barbecu</i>

'Das Barbecu' is a lively show with an excellent cast and direction. Too bad it has more fun spoofing Texas than skewering Wagner.

If you prefer your Gesamtkunstwerk with guacamole, a full helping is to be had at ACT Theatre's Das Barbecu.

The production, which opened Thursday, is a revival of the musical by writer Jim Luigs (book and lyrics) and Seattle-based composer Scott Warrender. Das Barbecu whimsically translates the characters of Wagner's four-opera The Ring of the Nibelung into a boot-clad clan of tacky Texan misfits.

Despite the Lone Star setting, it's a homecoming for the show, which was born when Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera and a Texan himself, commissioned a light-hearted theater work to complement the company's summer Ring cycle in 1991. A shorter preliminary version was first tried out at Seattle Rep; after a tour on the East Coast, ACT gave the Seattle premiere of the full-on Barbecu in 1995. Since then, it has attracted something of a cult following through productions all over the map.

The premise behind Das Barbecu is to shoehorn the epic complexity of the Ring into a musical-comedy/revue format. The play on Wagner derives from seeing his convoluted plot enacted by a bunch of squabbling rubes in lieu of mythic heroes (Wagner's music is left untouched). Barbecu focuses on the crisis in the last of the Ring cycle operas, Gotterdammerung, while the other three operas get a few glancing allusions.

Yet alongside the story compression, the show's creators decided to expand some of the roles by imagining what these characters might do between the scenes where they actually appear in the Ring. Gutrune, for instance, turns into a key player as Brunnhilde's hapless rival: a trash-talking, sex-crazed go-getter ready to pounce on Siegfried during his engagement at the local honky-tonk as a crooning cowboy. (Her nasty half-brother Hagen, with plans of his own, speeds things along by slipping a rufi into Siegfried's margarita).

The whole set-up could have occasioned a brilliant satire that pricks at the assumptions of Wagnerian high art. As a long-time Ring lover myself, I've found a lot to enjoy in Anna Russell's classic send-up and in the downright outrageous, wonderfully demented "recycling" Charles Ludlam made in 1977 for his Ridiculous Theatrical Company (Der Ring Gott Farblonjet).

But that's exactly the sort of tack Das Barbecu wants to avoid. It opts for amusing spoof over irreverent parody, targeting the readily spoofable garishness of popular culture Texas style instead of the Ring itself. The result is a pleasant but tame diversion. Toward the end, even the comedy gets blunted by a sentimental catechism arriving in a Broadway power anthem for Brunnhilde ("Turn the Tide").

Of course, diversion rather than subversion is the point of the show. It was, after all, originally intended as a fun night off for audiences wanting to de-pressurize while otherwise absorbed in the Ring over at Seattle Opera (where three cycles of the acclaimed "green" Ring production will be performed through the rest of the month). Ironically, Das Barbecu can even work on a certain level as an accidental parody of the far-out, "Regie"-centered Rings that are at the other end of the spectrum from the traditionalist aesthetic on display at McCaw Hall.

What's frustrating is the sense of missed opportunities, given the obvious talent at work here. Luigs's barrage of homespun one-liners are devilishly funny, and his lyrics have an idiosyncratic charm. Warrender, who has also written such musicals as The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist and HappyPants!, seems hobbled by the show's concept. Too many of the numbers — accompanied by an exuberant, four piece pit band led by Richard Gray — sound like generic country-western idioms spiced with a bit of Broadway pizzazz. When his musical personality is allowed to shine through, Warrender makes a memorable impact — mostly in more intimate moments (an introspective solo for Brunnhilde and "Slide a Little Closer," a two-step duet with Siegfried).

The best material is where Luigs and Warrender simply let go and free-associate, giving the Norns a song-and-dance called "Hog-Tie Your Man" and inventing a new scenario for Freia during her afternoon with the Giants ("A Little House for Me"). These are among Das Barbecu's many inside jokes (where you'll hear a rise in the laugh meter), along with the technique of Wagnerian flashback and a belabored routine about Hagen'ꀙs "narcolepsy."

But by no means do you have to be a Ring aficionado to enjoy the show, especially with the lively, cartoonishly stylized direction and choreography of Stephen Terrell (who directed the first ACT production back in 1995). And he has a superb cast to work with. Each actor of this tight, efficient ensemble of five morphs effortlessly among multiple roles. Richard Ziman's "one-eyed bandit" of a Wotan is a crooked, nouveau-riche oil baron one moment and a mullet-inflicted Gunther the next. Carter J. Davis, an endearingly Sam Shepardy Siegfried, does the most hilarious turnabout of all as a jail-breaking Alberich who would fit right in with the Three Stooges.

Countering Jennifer Johnson's manically perky Gutrune is the self-reliant Brunnhilde of Billie Wildrick, who contributes the loveliest voice to the show and has real chemistry with her man Siegfried. Veteran Anne Allgood appeared in ACT's first Barbecu and, with her tart-tongued Fricka and blissed-out "Erda Walla," completes her traversal of the show's entire female cast.

A real treat of this production comes from its clever visuals (set and costumes by David Zinn and lighting by Alex Berry). Tacky topiary displays for Valhalla (which get singed to a crisp in the apocalypse) alternate with a lone mesa mountain top and the trailer decor of "Rancho Gibich." And the costumes — Gutrune's monstrosity of a cowgirl wedding dress or the Norns' pink nighties as they cuddle with their hippie earth-mother — go to absurd extremes you wish the musical itself would emulate more often.


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