After killing a raven in the forest, a king is cursed by the bird's owner. The only way to break the curse is to find a woman with “skin white as marble, lips red as scarlet, and hair black like the raven's wing.” Such is the story behind 18th century dramatist Carlo Gozzi's play The Raven . Gozzi wrote fairy tales for a Commedia Dell'Arte troupe in Venice. The story has been adapted by Ellen Stewart at La MaMa ETC, and transformed in a musical set in China and utilizing traditional theatrical elements from that country. The dazzling adaptation proves that some stories are universal, able to cross cultural, geographical, and time boundaries. Hoping to help his brother, King Millo, escape from the curse, Jennaro goes off in search a woman possessing the qualities needed to break the curse. He finds Armilla, the daughter of King Norando, a powerful magician. Jennaro soon finds out that should he give Armilla to King Millo, the king will be killed. And if he does not give Armilla to the king, Jennaro himself will turn into a statue. Caught in a rough spot, Jennaro does his best to save his brother, coming up against almost insurmountable obstacles.
Stewart's production of the fairy tale is mesmerizing. Three projection screens line the back wall, first showing ocean waves and a boat advancing towards the audience. When the boat nearly reaches the edge of the screen, a real boat emerges from behind and is assembled before the audience's eyes. The space of the entire theater is subsequently utilized, with scenes occurring in the walkway above and to the side of the audience, in the aisles, and on the large stage. It is a big idea and it is quite right that it should completely overtake a large space.
Musicians line the stage right side of the space. The music, composed by Stewart with Michael Sirotta, is a mix of both live and recorded music, often playing simultaneously and occasionally making it difficult to hear and comprehend the words sung by the performers. The difficultly in comprehending some of the words could also stem from the fact that they occasionally were in Mandarin, with an English translation (I assume) following.
The conventions of Commedia have been mostly replaced by conventions from the Beijing Opera. There are several dances throughout which feature twirling and flowing fabric and ribbons. Everything on stage is highly stylized, from the entrances and exits to the way in which the words are sung. Pantalone and Tartaglia, two ministers to the brothers, each have specific movements they perform before speaking. Additionally, the characters each have intricately painted faces and gaudily embroidered costumes. The change in theatrical style shows the way in which stories are able to float across the collective world and speak to different people at different times while retaining relevance.
The Raven is a spectacular production, from its story to to its music to its movement. Although one could guess that the ending will be happy, the final result of the tale is surprising, keeping the story above the level of predictability that commonly haunts fairy tales. The engaging tale and sparkling production values are sure to be enjoyed by anyone who should happen to venture into The Annex at La MaMa.