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Kaspar Hauser

Elizabeth Swados' new opera about the legendary German wild child has some good moments, but could use stronger melodies. logo
Preston Martin and Nicolas Greco in Kaspar Hauser
(© Ryan Jensen)
Kaspar Hauser, a presumed wild child found wandering the streets of Nuremberg in 1830, quickly became a national question mark on whom myriad backgrounds and assumptions were suggested as explanations for his feral state. Ironically, just as the German populace imposed their multifarious responses on the 16-year-old, so have numerous artists, writers, and filmmakers over the years.

The latest is the prolific Elizabeth Swados, who has composed and co-written Kaspar Hauser, now at the Flea Theater. While this new work has its moments, the familiar satirical targets at which it takes aim, as well as the manner in which it's been constructed and directed, will likely keep it from long-term entry into musical-theater annals.

The 90-minute piece -- co-authored by Erin Courtney and featuring the theater company's young performers, The Bats -- ultimately registers as an homage to the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill-Marc Blitzstein Threepenny Opera by way of the earlier John Gay Beggar's Opera. At its most basic level, though, Kaspar Hauser concerns the title character, an unsocialized innocent (played by Preston Martin) either consistently misunderstood or mistreated, even by those meaning to help him. However, with the cast of 18 energetic Bats swooping around as a public interested in the awkward boy only as savior or demon sent among them, an entirely different point emerges. Apparently, Swados and Courtney are obsessed with the way artists are habitually taken up by the mob and just as abruptly dropped.

"I would like to be a rider," Kaspar repeatedly exclaims, as he clutches his only possession, a toy horse. But since enunciation is one of the benighted Kaspar's deficiencies, it's easy to hear the declaration as "I want to be a writer" and consequently to view the boy's plight as a metaphor for assailed artists. Indeed, it's hard to believe this confusion isn't deliberate on Swados' part.

In her capacity as director, Swados is big on stopping the motion so that, as if they are mechanical dolls, the cast members must hold contorted positions and distorted expressions. The result is that sometimes the stage looks like a roomful of children who are confirming a mother's warning that making ugly faces should be avoided, because "You might freeze like that."

Finally, as she continues writing musicals, it has also become apparent that Swados' trouble isn't a deliberate avoidance of facile melody, but a difficulty in realizing melody. Although most of Kaspar Hauser is unrhymed recitative, there are times when a full-blown melody is precisely what's needed to drive a dramatic stake into the proceedings. If anyone leaves humming these songs, it's likely due to sheer repetition.


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