Tommy Lee Jones goes to opera alone
Once again, we are taken by the infinitely fertile minds of the Buntport ensemble, where a real life chance encounter seeing Tommy Lee Jones alone in line at a Santa Fe Opera production of La Bohème turns into an astounding and heartwarming piece of theatre.
A near life-size puppet of Tommy Lee sits, lifelessly, at a table in a diner, we assume to be in San Saba, Texas, near one of his ranches, not far from where the actor was born. Across from him sits a mysterious figure, in a black jump suit with a hood that includes screening over the face. The lights dim, an operatic overture fills the theatre, and, one by one, enter the actors who will animate Tommy Lee's Left Hand (Erin Rollman), Right Hand (Evan Weissman), and, to great fanfare, his Head (Brian Colonna), wearing matching black jump suits, just like that of the mysterious figure, who turns out to be the Voice (Erik Edborg).
This is no ordinary puppet. The hands were carved by Kagen Schaefer, a Denver wood artist extraordinaire, and mechanized by Corey Milner, a talented local robotics teacher. The head was a group effort detailed by Rollman. The coordination of Tommy Lee's gestures and actions including opening and closing a musical pocket watch that plays arias, plus eating a piece of pie and drinking coffee, rolling his eyes, walking, etc. is reminiscent of the equines in War Horse, which required three people to bring each of them to life.
Jones' fourth-wall monologue astounding in scope and maturity, and genuinely humorous covering everything from the pie and philosophic musings on life to the finer points of Puccini's operas, is interrupted by occasional forays back to three-wall artifice, where he and the waitress, Jane (Hannah Duggan), trade small talk as well as high-brow speculation on possible endings for Turandot, which Puccini famously never finished. Edborg's does great emotive work as the Voice, well nuanced, with just a twinge of Texas twang.
Despite his rapture over Rudolpho's arias and the adaptations of melodies from La bohème into hit songs in the '50's (great pantomime by Duggan on "Don't You Know?," a big hit for Della Reese in 1959), Tommy Lee is most fond of Turandot, since it has the most potential to be different every night, which is a clue that the ending of this piece is going to be a total surprise.
As usual, the Buntport players find wonderful low-tech solutions to enthrall and surprise us; for example, Jane explains in detail the plot of Turandot using the silverware and the condiments at Tommy Lee's table. We'll avoid a spoiler alert and let you try to imagine how this might go.
As Tommy Lee Jones points out, there are three types when it comes to opera: those who consider it the "o" word, and assiduously avoid it; those who have never thought about it; and opera snobs, who have no time for Puccini. Granted, Puccini can be seen as cloying and manipulative, as Tommy Lee points out, but he also wisely notes that if you can't handle it, you've probably never been in love. As an example, the play offers us clips from Jussi Bjõrling singing one of the most cherished arias of all time, "Nissun dorma," from Turandot. Who is Jussi Bjõrling? The late great Luciano Pavarotti once remarked, when someone compared him to Björling, "Please, I'm only mortal!" Listen to this rendition (wait a few moments for it to start). Be sure to catch the ending. Have you ever hear a tenor reach these heights? And this is an old, low-quality recording. There are some recordings that include the chorus, but ...
-Bob Bows, March 20, 2012, ColoradoDrama.com
Buntport Theater's wildly original "Tommy Lee Jones"
In a show that sets a new bar for innovation, insight and breathtaking equality the Buntport ensemble has figured out a way to let everyone, and no one, star in "Tommy Lee Jones Goes to the Opera Alone" the original Denver troupe has conceived a brilliant commentary on culture and celebrity.
The latest show by Denver's most collaborative theater company was inspired by a chance encounter in New Mexico: Buntport's Brian Colonna and Hannah Duggan spotted Jones, solo, in the box-office line for the Santa Fe Opera's "La bohème."
It's not hard to guess their immediate reaction. Agent Kay from "Men in Black" at the opera? The crusty man on the moon from "Space Cowboys"? The grave robber from "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"?
Well, why not? Who's to say how Tommy Lee Jones spends his own time? Except ... if you're Tommy Lee Jones, and you're out in public, are you ever really offstage? If you're Tommy Lee Jones, or anyone else with an instantly recognizable name and a tail of paparazzi, do you actually have a private life?
All that hovers between the lines in "Tommy Lee Jones Goes to the Opera Alone," which features a puppet stunningly evocative of the Texas actor known for his taciturn characters.
The puppet Tommy Lee Jones has no mouth, but expressive eyes and eyebrows, and fantastic outsized hands. Each of the three movable parts requires a separate Buntport actor to manipulate, creating what may be the most droll cast credits ever: Colonna as Head, Evan Weissman as Right Hand, Erin Rollman as Left Hand and Erik Edborg as Voice.
All the action takes place in a cafe where Tommy Lee Jones is seated with a piece of pie, a glass of water and a cup of coffee. He's clearly a regular and on good terms with the waitress, Jane, played by Duggan, the only durably recognizable Buntport member.
The other actors are hidden within Bunraku- style black suits and face masks. They almost (but not quite) fade into the background as they animate Tommy Lee Jones, who pontificates on (among other things) opera, the transience of live performance, "Turandot," seppuku, Elvis Presley's operatic potential, pie and breaking the fourth wall.
The audience first glimpses the actors in black as they stroll on stage to stretch and don their gear like scuba divers. There's a frisson of unrequited love from Weissman to Rollman, and from Rollman to the impervious Colonna, creating a humming tension underneath Tommy Lee Jones' rambling discourse.
Try to sit in one of the first three rows for the best view of the remarkable mechanics required to energize Tommy Lee Jones. You'll want to see how the puppeteers coordinate when Tommy Lee Jones ambles off stage to take a phone call, and the gymnastics involved when he crosses his extremely thin legs. (His jeans came from the girls' department.)
Those fantastically detailed wooden hands, carved by puzzle maker Kagen Schaefer, who also made the expressive face, are worked by wire filament threaded into gloves that Rollman and Weissman manipulate. The dexterity required to pick up a glass of water or a fork is a complicated task that only another puppeteer, or a Craig Hospital patient, can fully appreciate.
"Tommy Lee Jones Goes to the Opera Alone," which runs for 75 minutes with no intermission, is smart, challenging, witty and may be Buntport's best collaboration yet.
-Claire Martin, March 23, 2012, Denver Post
Buntporters in fine form this spring
"Tommy Lee Jones Goes to Opera Alone" is the newest original creation of the exceedingly clever Buntport Theatre Company and itís really a winner. Who would think that a Tommy Lee Jones sighting (in the ticket line, alone) at the Santa Fe Opera last summer would lead to a theater piece?
Admittedly, itís a stretch to imagine the movie characters Jones has played as opera buffs. But this accomplished actor has many facets.
We meet him this time, sitting in a cafe, eating a piece of pie.
A life-size puppet replica of TLJ waxes poetic about cowboy boots, life as a movie star and love of opera as he sits with three Buntporters, while a fourth one (Erik Edborg) voices the actor in a relaxed Texas style.
The puppet was created by Kagen Schafer, who made a head that really resembles TLJ and jointed hands that work amazingly well to pick up things, reach in a pocket and more.
Hands were mechanized by Corey Miller, according to the program and the eyes and eyebrows move on the head, although the mouth does not.
The cast list reads: Hannah Duggan Jane, the waitress; Erik Edborg voice; Brian Colonna head; Evan Weissman right hand; Erin Rollman left hand. The latter three have now or previously had experience in puppeteering.
The jointed fingers pick up items and the eyes and brows are expressive. Fine wire from the fingers fits into the gloves of Weissman and Rollman for operation, while Colonna has some levers on the back of Jonesí head to manipulate.
Watching them walk him to the phone in the next room or simply cross his knees is an event.
Duggan, a skilled comic actress, is dressed as a frazzled waitress. She has a fair number of opinions and is acquainted with Jones.
The other four wear black suits that cover body and head most of the time, so they fade into the background as a good puppeteer should.
Then thereís Jonesí gold watch that starts operatic arias when opened, spurring the actor to talk about his favorite, "Turandot," and "La Boheme" and Elvisí potential and more. "I go to opera a lot. Usually alone," he tells them, as he asks June the waitress for more coffee. And thereís a reminder from his wife to get a piece of pie to go. ...
"Artists take molehills and make them into mountains," he says about the creative process, speculating about Puccini and the end of the "Turandot" story.
The conversation draws to an end and two of the puppeteers come to blows also cleverly staged. After 75 minutes with no intermission, the audience departs chuckling. Donít miss this one.
-Sonya Ellingboe, March 26, 2012, ourCastleRocknews.com
|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.
-Juliet Wittman, April 3, 2012, Westword