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Das Barbecu never catches fire

Das Barbecu, currently showing at Stages Repertory Theatre, is a strange show indeed. The musical is loosely based on Wagner's famous work Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle), which is a four-part cycle of operas about Norse mythology, magic and gods. That gargantuan achievement takes over 15 hours to perform in its entirety, and is universally considered one of the most important artistic achievements in operatic history -- and thus, like all great artistic achievements, it's ripe for parody.

Or so thought Das Barbecu writers Jim Luigs and Scott Warrender. They have (in the spirit of the play) hog-tied and dragged Wagner's tale all the way across the Atlantic and down to Texas, then renamed it and thoroughly lampooned it. The music is now country and western; the story and the characters are a bizarre conflation of Texas legend and Norse mythology: An oil-rich Texas Daddy (Wotan, the name of the chief god of Norse mythology) finds himself fighting a dwarf with magical powers. River maidens (mythical creatures in Wagner's tale) find themselves kicked out of the river and stuck performing synchronized dancing in a water show, a la San Antonio's Sea World. The Texas Daddy's little grownup girl (Brunnhilde) wants to marry her nephew (Siegfried), in that white-trash Texas way, but only after the nephew rescues her from a ring of fire (I kid you not) in that Norse mythological kind of way. If you're following all this, you're doing a lot better than I was, Friday night.

In my own defense, I'm not the only one who has trouble following this tale. The original story is so enormous and complicated that it takes pages and pages just to summarize the thing. Thus, it took a great deal of cojones, or plain bull-headedness, on the Barbecu writers' part to imagine they could compress The Ring Cycle into a two-hour musical comedy. The feat is impossible; thus, at several points during the musical, a narrator (Jennie Welch) steps out of the action and speaks directly to the audience, explaining all that's happening in the plot.

She stops the country-and-western singing and declares that the audience has a "glazed-over look." Knowing that we don't have any notion about what's going on, she explains to us (1) what just happened, (2) what's about to happen and (3) what happened before the whole play started. She sets the story straight; then the singing and the music and the two-stepping start in again. And the actors go whirling about, perplexing the audience a while longer, until the narrator trots out again and clears up the muddle once more. Thankfully, she's there to tell the story, for without her, the audience would spend the entire evening in the dark. But any featherweight musical comedy (which this show is) that needs a narrator to explain the simple logistics of who's who and what's what seems handicapped from the get-go. To make matters even more confounding, each of the five actors in the production plays at least five roles. Admittedly, at times it's amusing to watch their quick changes, but it's also frustratingly confusing.

The performers are almost good enough to save this show from itself. All five -- Elizabeth Byrd, Paul Nicely, Jimmy Phillips, Alison Spuck and Jennie Welch (whose voice and presence are especially charming) -- are strong; their voices ring clear as bells, and they appear to be doing their damnedest to muster enthusiasm for this production. But at the end of Act One, when someone on stage begs the audience to come back after intermission because "There's a lot of plot we got to somehow get through," I couldn't help but sigh and think, "say it ain't so."

But of course it was so. And somehow, Act Two seemed longer and more strangely opaque than the first. When Siegfried (the nephew who rescues his aunt-cum-lover from the ring of fire) dies and gets carried off by two actors sporting white outfits and horned Viking hats, the moment is beyond bizarre. The woman sitting next to me suddenly whispered to her companion, "Were those supposed to be angels?" The comment was a terrific summation of the evening.

The musical accompaniment was also peculiar. Though all the songs were most decidedly country in their aspirations, the instrumentals were oddly generic. What was billed as a fiddle sounded more like a violin, and there was no guitar, no banjo, no slide guitar, no harmonica -- not a single instrument associated with a country-and-western sound.

The whole production became increasingly irritating as the night marched on. And by the end, I was downright hostile to the endless stream of goofy songs that didn't add up to much of anything, not even a coherent story.

Parody can be great fun. And lampooning operas is nothing new. In fact, if you could turn back your TV dial 30 years, you'd find any number of silly "opera" sketches on any number of TV variety shows. Carol Burnett, Red Skelton and even Bugs Bunny have an opera or two in their repertoire. (There's even a comic-strip version of Wagner's Ring Cycle.) Das Barbecu is much like its cartoony predecessors except for one enormous difference: The play goes on much longer than the seven minutes allotted to most comic sketches. And that makes this play about one hour and 53 minutes too long.

Das Barbecu plays through January 4 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 52-

 
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