Richard Wagner, noted 19th-century composer and essayist, died in 1883, close to 100 years before the World Wrestling Federation hosted their first Royal Rumble in 1988. At first glance, there are surely not two more disparate forms of entertainment: Wagner was one of the greatest operatic engineers of 19th-century Europe, whereas professional wrestling is arguably closer to a B-grade action film. But taken at their most basic constructions (the fight between good and evil), these two ideas of art/entertainment may not be so far apart as one might think; many of Wagner’s operas include epic and violent royal rumbles of their own and pro wrestling’s grandiose and fabricated plots or kayfabes might even be considered Wagnerian barring the lack of classicist reference. So it isn’t surprising that, in Performance Lab 115’s latest production, The Ring Cycle (Part 1 + 2), a restaging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelengun (at the Bushwick Starr through October 30th), all of the original characters in the great composer’s opera still retain there power and scope after being recast and re-imagined as participants in a pro wrestling pay-per-view, stripped of their hammering music and then retrofitted (literally) with bad ’80s hair. Performance Lab 115’s loyalty to the original Wagner, and a few ingenious little additions of their own (in what might be considered a response to George Bernard Shaw’s take on the original), makes for an evening that is both edifying for erudite Wagnerian scholars and electrifying for PBR-swilling, mortal men alike.
The Ring Cycle at the Starr follows much the same arc as Wagner’s drama: The king of the gods, Wotan (Jeff Clarke) has promised his wife and goddess Fricka (Rachel Jablin) that he’ll no longer rule mortal men by roaming the terra firma and sleeping with mortal women. Instead, he will build Fricka a fortress in the sky called Valhalla where they can live together. Though she’s appreciative of what she deems the “magical clubhouse in the sky” (the first of many whip-smart parallels drawn by PL115 between the powerful male gods of Wagner and little mortal male children), she’s more concerned with the fact that Wotan has promised her sister Freia (Rebecca Lingafelter) as payment to the giants Fafner and Fasolt for the manufacture of the glass-like fortress with its attendant rainbow (Fafner: “Do you know how hard it is to build a rainbow”?). Performance Lab 115 adds plenty of its own ribald comedy to punch up a story that traditionally relies heavily on its accompanying operatic score—even though Wagner would have said otherwise. Early on, Fafner calls Wotan—whose name is actually pronounced like Voltron—“Wonton,” on purpose, comparing the King of the Gods to a dumpling, which prompts Wotan to cry out in frustration as he corrects Fafner, “It’s German!” The self-parody apparent here is lovely, as a little back and forth between Wotan and Fafner highlights Performance Lab 115’s deliberate bastardization of a very German text. There are also moments of tense universal introspection, like when Wotan and Brunehilde share PBRs in the den of a mortal man while discussing the fate of the human race—a scene so rife with irony that it gives the audience pause at the delicious absurdist humor.
The audience learns of Wotan’s familial faux pas through a typical one-mic pro wrestling interview conducted by the host for the night, Kranky Kathy—an ’80s blowout rockin’, shoulder-pad sporting, baby-blue business suit-wearing announcer who promises to get us the inside scoop on all things immortal. Wotan’s Macho Man Randy Savage wraparound sunglasses, chauvinistic posturing, and signature gravelly voice, all associated with the stereotypical hero of the wrestling world, are spot on. Fafner (Christopher Hirsch) and Fassolt (the massive and expressive Michael Melkovic) are channeling another pro-wrestler, one of the baddies, Andre the Giant, as both in the play are decked out in the massive wrestler’s signature black spandex singlet, and it isn’t long before the bell sounds and Wotan readies his pecks to do tag-team battle with the behemoth brothers. The choreography by Casey Robinson (Age of Iron) is carried out effortlessly and with comic effect; Wotan’s bulky fake muscle suit is no hindrance, and for a moment the audience is right there in 1988 in Canada where televised wrestling got its start.
Eventually, Wotan finds himself at a stalemate with the giants and decides he needs to go against his morals and trick the evil brothers into accepting something else as payment, without getting his own hands dirty. Cue the mischievous Loge (Christopher Ryan Richards, channeling the perverted side of Pee-wee Herman, plaid pants and all) and the story of how he meets Alberich and the Rheinmaidens with their infamous gold; the little dwarf steals the gold, renounces love, forges the ring, and in so doing, sets the world on its head, prompting the generations long battle to right the balance of good and evil in the human world. Wotan’s son Sigmund eventually gets hold of the championship belt (the simulacrum for the magic sword Notung in Wagner) with the help of Brunhilda and the audience is left with the hope that Wotan and family will finally win over evil.
But no player in this drama correctly estimates the corrupting, absolute power of the Ring, and even on the do-gooder finger of Wotan, who would seem the only character capable of controlling the ring’s evil, the tiny gold piece of jewelry comes close to making a cold-blooded murderer out of the only good god left. What’s most interesting about this last incident of interrupted homicide and the lens of pro wrestling is the addition to Wagner’s original story arc that comes in the form of a Super Fan that stands up abruptly from within the audience and calls for a halt in the action as Wotan brings the coupe de grace (a metal fold-up chair, obviously) on Fafner. “Wait! No! This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” he says, postponing the end of the evil giant. The Super Fan (a nerdy Jeremy Beck) knows this isn’t right; Wotan is the good guy. He’s better than that. The fan loses faith in Wotan, and runs off crying, prompting Wotan to lose faith in himself. The irony here is that later on in the piece Wotan will conspire to kill his own flesh and blood, even though his hand is stayed by conscience when it comes to the evil giant—a permissible transgression by Wagnerian standards, but in the eyes of humanity, and audience for that matter, this turn of events is an absolutely ridiculous act of hypocrisy. The lofty gods as celebrity wrestlers become a metaphor for the hope of both the gold Ring and the roped ring that the good guys will eventually win out over the heels.
This isn’t to say that the production didn’t come without its flaws, and even though the casting was superb, as was the simple but functional sets, the script got bogged down at a few points in tired comedic references. Lines like, “I fucking hate flashbacks,” and Fricka admitting that she “just threw up in her mouth a little bit,” are nothing new in the scope of contemporary comedy, and with such an inventive reimagining and so much room to play with language and experiment in this production, there was an unspoken expectation that the text would follow suit. The audience, however, is left with a tiny armada of recycled one-liners and colloquialisms popularized in mainstream film. In the same vein of reinvention, Performance Lab 115 had the opportunity here to imagine a more prominent and powerful female figure in a typically male-dominated story (Freud would have had a field day with Wotan’s spear), and to create an updated and powerful Brunhilde to showcase an extraordinarily feminine yet fierce woman in a drama where females are either wives, whiny goddesses, or bearers of children. But Brunhilde was portrayed as the sniveling and scared daughter of Wotan as opposed to a woman in charge of her own fate, and not echoing at all the often times emasculating and forceful women associated with professional wrestling—the ones who could kick your ass and look damn good doing it.
The fluidity between Wagner’s epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen and the twisting psychodrama of ’80s-era World Wrestling Federation are at least one reason that Performance Lab 115 interpretation works so well. Wagner’s invention of leitmotifs or theme music that introduced each of his characters in Der Ring des Niebelungen, such as Sigmund’s signature bars in the operatic phrasing, echo the effects of “Pomp and Circumstance” playing whenever Macho Man Randy Savage appears at the mat. Wagner would have understood the need and desire to obtain a powerful bit of jewelry to represent one’s supremacy; the championship belt or, in the case of the des Nibelungen, one ring to rule them all. The sometimes-controversial composer might also have consented that there’s always the chance of mischief, back-alley deals, tricks, and double crosses outside of the honorable face-to-face battles, and Loge’s meddling is no different than a tag team breaking the rules of engagement. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Wagner would have appreciated our desire to place the forces in our lives into neat categories, of good and of evil, of heroes and villains, or, in wrestling parlance, babyfaces and heels. Wagner knew that the search for a hero who can keep the darkness at bay while protecting us from the forces of evil is something that all people can get behind—even if that hero drinks PBR.
The Ring Cycle (Part 1 + 2) is now playing at the Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street) in Brooklyn and continues until October 30. Schedule: Thu-Sun at 8pm. Running time: 2 hours.