People often think of opera as expensive, snooty stuff with clunky acting and rigid staging. Robert Lepage’s latest production of The Ring at the Met has done little to reverse stereotypical expectations. “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history,” Alex Ross recently thundered in The New Yorker. Indeed, with a budget of $16 million and a notorious hydraulic-plank set that weighs around 45 tons (and which has been known to malfunction), Lepage’s Ring is epic in scope, size and cost.
Another version of Wagner’s magnum opus is stepping into the ring, so to speak, downtown. The actor-driven company Performance Lab 115 presents its Ring Cycle: Parts 1–4 this month at the Incubator Arts Project. Though coinciding with its uptown counterpart, this version has a decidedly different artistic approach. For one thing, you won’t be hearing any arias. Instead of singing soaring arpeggios in an attempt to advance—or explain prickly plot points, the actors in PL115’s adaptation settle the score by wrestling. Tickets cost a mere $18, and the running time clocks in at two hours with two intermissions (by comparison, the Met’s Götterdämmerung is five hours and 50 minutes).
“I kept thinking about how this story could be reimagined for an American audience,” says Dave Dalton. The director freely admits that his only exposure to the Ring, before setting out to adapt and direct it, was “What’s Opera Doc?,” the Looney Toons classic in which an unlikely romance unfolds between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, with Wagner’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” set to the words “Kill the Wabbit.”
“I’m interested in works that seem culturally insurmountable because of the baggage that goes along with them,” explains Dalton. “When you drill down and uncover the heart of those dramatic works, there’s something unexpected.” For Dalton, who cowrote the script with actor Jeremy Beck (juggling the roles of Superfan, Siegmund and Mime), the surprise is that the Ring can be pretty damn funny. “We wanted a version that stays true to the dramatic structure but allows the weirdness of the opera to be comedic—like the brother-sister incest,” says Dalton.
The company settled on the 1980s as a period in American history when political and economic hubris seemed to match bombastic elements in the mythic tetralogy. Still, the creators had to figure out how to have a character walk onstage and talk about being a god, without tipping into sketch-comedy triviality. Pro wrestling, with its inherently theatrical grandeur and good-guy-versus-villain narratives, seemed to strike a balance between believable and silly.
Dalton and his collaborators studied Wagner’s story, reading the libretto as well as a Dark Horse Comics graphic-novel version. They also listened to “The Ring and I,” a WNYC Radiolab podcast that discusses the Ring’s importance in the opera world and places it in a larger cultural context.
Though neither Wagner’s language nor music enter into the production, the story structure and character names remain the same. Some specifics have morphed. “We transposed the magic sword Woton leaves for Siegmund in Part 2 into a wrestling belt,” says Dalton. Brünnhilde is not confined to a ring of fire on a mountaintop: Instead, a domestic setting involving a television, couch and an abundance of cheese puffs ensnare her in inertia.
The adaptation was done collectively by the actors, many of whom attended Columbia’s M.F.A. acting program. “We’ve been lucky to be able to perform parts of the show in a number of places,” says PL115 artistic director Jeff Clarke, who also plays Woton. The idea began at the O’Neill Center, where the group was in residence. Clarke had an old sweatshirt and some rags, which were used as a makeshift wrestling suit. Workshops took place at the undergroundzero festival and the Bushwick Starr.
Despite larger-than-life wigs and anthemic rock (expect to hear “The Final Countdown”), tongues are only partially in cheek. “Hopefully our love of the story and our love of how ridiculous the story can be will come across—whether or not you’re a Ring fanatic,” says Dalton. “We’re aiming for respectful irreverence.” As for the set, it resembles a wrestling-ring platform. “We spent about $1,400 on it,” estimates Clarke. But how does it move? “We push it.”