Ethos' Atlantis: A Puppet Opera
This new musical take on the fall of Atlantis pulls us into an ancient place, powered by myth and ritual
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 16, 2016
You could call it a story as old as the sun and the moon: Two nations are at war, and one vows vengeance against the other for assassinating its ruler. Fueled by its citizens' belief that they are the chosen people of their god, this nation considers itself invincible. But it is not, and for its arrogance, it pays a terrible price: being cast down in a most cruel and tragic fashion.
So it goes in Atlantis: A Puppet Opera, the latest musical creation from Ethos, the company that realizes Chad Salvata's cybernetic operas, performance installations, and mythic musicals. In this one, the title is, of course, a total giveaway regarding the doom that awaits the nation in question – who isn't aware of the great island of ancient times that sank beneath the waves? – but Salvata, who provides the music and libretto here, adds to our sense of foreboding with the Atlanteans' repeated references to their select status with the sun god and their invincibility. The proclamations in this vein by Prince Helios – an overweening warrior given great swagger by puppeteers Emerald Mystiek and Abigail Lucas and a vainglorious voice by Justin LaVergne – are enough to signal the conceit in this race, but when their mighty battleship, the Invinctus, is declared unsinkable, you just know it's headed the way of the Titanic.
It reeks of hubris, that extreme pride that caused the downfall of so many characters in the tragedies of ancient Greece, and this opera calls to mind that culture of yore in more ways than one. Helios seems cut from the same combative cloth as Heracles and Achilles, and the Invinctus is another Argo, sailing to retrieve a magical object – though instead of the Golden Fleece, here it's the red crystal eye of the monstrous Kracken, which will power Atlantis for a full century. The fish-tailed inhabitants of Mermaidia, where the Kracken dwells, have a siren song that lures many of the Invinctus' sailors to their deaths in the sea. Divine messages and prophecies foretell the outcome of the story. Even the puppets' unchanging faces recall the masks of old Greek drama. We are in a place powered by myth and ritual, where the impact of the tale is heightened by the sense of tradition and ceremony.
Puppetry thus makes an effective medium for this story and its message. The stylized representation of the human characters, the use of gesture to convey state of mind and emotion, the reliance on the audience's imagination to help breathe life into these inanimate figures, all pull us further out of our time of naturalistic behavior and mundane activities back to a past age of gods, quests, and enchanted beasts. There, we can surrender to the allure of legend and let its power work on us. And Ethos has gathered a crew of artists who power this production the way that Kracken's eye does Atlantis. The puppets, engineered and constructed by Vortex Managing Director Melissa Vogt and Trouble Puppet Theater Company Artistic Director Connor Hopkins, all possess a regal bearing and are deftly manipulated to express force, outrage, sorrow, and more – qualities that are boosted immeasurably by the puppeteers who provide the characters' voices. Besides LaVergne's Helios, Michelle Haché's Queen Solstra, Jonathan Itchon's high priest Magus, and Vogt's sorceress Chandra are commanding, their voices coming at you like a tidal wave, while Anderson Dear's Merra, queen of Mermaidia, has a mesmerizing quality wonderfully suited to an undersea siren. Salvata's music is the current that pulls us through the story, which has some striking set-pieces, the highlight being the battle with the Kracken, embodied here by gigantic tentacles, each wielded by a different puppeteer, so that the leviathan encompasses the entirety of the Vortex stage. Jason Amato's lighting bathes every moment in the vivid hues of storybooks and dreams. And Bonnie Cullum directs it all with the gravitas of a Greek drama of old.
I can't claim to have felt catharsis at the opera's end, but I did feel a twinge of anxiety, seeing in Atlantis a reflection of a country that likes to revel in its own exceptionalism, its favored-nation status with the one true God. That attitude and a quickness to avenge can lead to trouble, as we should know by this point in the 21st century. Whether Atlantis works as tragedy, it definitely functions as a cautionary tale.
Atlantis: A Puppet OperaThe Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through Sept. 24
Running time: 1 hr.