The Pig, The Farmer, And The Artist
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
August 18, 2010
David Chesky's The Pig, the Farmer, and the Artist (Chesky wrote the book, music, and lyrics) successfully subverts operatic norms in a rollicking satire of 21st century America's attitudes toward the arts, using the country's seeming preoccupation with sex as the engine to drive the piece. Employing broad farcical allegory, Chesky skewers the Me First money grubbers and sex-obsessed reality worshippers who can't see the melting pole caps for the icebergs and prefer fake television reality to the real thing. It's a Brechtian call on behalf of all artists—Art matters, folks!
Chesky's story is part fairy tale and part theatre of the absurd. We begin in Europe where lives the richest, most successful farmer in the world, Farmer Jones (Cory Clines). His love for animals knows no boundaries, if you get my carnal drift—the sheep do. One day at the fair he buys an extremely well endowed Pig (Ryan Scott Lathan), Shirley the Cow who is a former hooker from Amsterdam (Wendy Buzby), her transvestite husband Harvey the Bull (James N. Kryshak), and a painter, The Artist (Christopher Preston Thompson). The Artist is an afterthought—he was thrown it at no cost and Farmer Jones figures what the heck he might sell some paintings. After some weeks go by Jones decides to slaughter Shirley and Harvey and what the heck the Artist, too—those paintings are just not selling! So the doomed trio escapes to New York as Act One concludes. Act Two finds them in the East Village where Shirley and Harvey are mooching off the Artist who is washing dishes to support his painting. A clever idea, which will not be revealed here, causes Shirley and Harvey to become instant celebrity millionaire painters, while the Artist toils in obscurity secure in the knowledge that his works will only be worth something after he is dead. Meanwhile in Europe the Pig hears of his former barn-mates' good fortune and wends his way to New York. Another clever idea brings the Pig even more fame than Shirley and Harvey. Jones hears of all this and comes to New York to wreak revenge on his wayward chattel. What follows is a crappy award ceremony (The Defecation Awards), a barbeque, a requiem, flights of angels, and some moralizing. Believe it or not, it's easy to follow and great fun!
Chesky's music is classical modern without being annoyingly hard on the ear. Though not exactly tuneful, the music supports the text in ways similar to Brecht's non-Weill collaborators—Dessau comes immediately to mind. There are no pseudo-melodies with impossible intervals that detract from so much of "modern" opera nowadays. In fact, when the music threatens to get too high-brow, some sort of reversal happens to remind us to not take it too seriously. I won't spoil the fun, but the Brechtian supertitles that set the scene and fill in gaps in time also assist in keeping the show on the comic down low.
Anthony Aibel nimbly leads a talented chamber orchestra comprised of strings, woodwinds, percussion, and a harp. He conducts with panache and just the right modicum of mirth. The musicians are first rate and traverse the difficult score with ease—the overture is particularly hard, a sporadic amalgamation of staccato notes and pizzicato plucking (don't be scared by it, there is a payoff—I just don't want to give anything away).
The cast, too, is excellent. Clines uses his fine bass baritone to great comic effect as the absurdly sex-crazed Jones. Lathan sports his pig attire with vengeful glee, proudly toting what can only be described as the world's longest porcine progenitor protuberance without apology and with a flair that makes us enjoy his villainy. Tenor Thompson makes us not only empathize with the Artist's plight, calmly painting in the eye of the madcap hurricane, but also gets us thinking about artists at large, our society's flotsam in the sea of instant gratification. Buzby and Kryshak make a perfect bovine duo. Mezzo soprano Buzby's lush voice enriches her role and her comic charms conquer her multi-teated corset endearingly. Tenor Kryshak is a fine comic as well and his manic tutu-wearing transvestite is definitely at home in this strange, strange world.
Melanie Long deserves extra kudos for her very funny and very different characterizations of the Farm Hand, Art Critic, and Art Dealer. The wonderful Greek Chorus Trio of soprano Ami Vice, mezzo Megan Marino, and tenor Steven Uliana hold the proceedings together in cleverly entertaining ways, with some fine choreography and a wide range of impersonations.
Director/designer A. Scott Parry uses simple and effective costumes, including signifiers for most of the animals—snouts, ears, and the aforementioned cow teats and pig appendage. His set is a bare stage with the orchestra upstage center in front of the large supertitle projection screen; having the musicians and conductor as background to the action adds to the fun. Parry's staging is nicely fast-paced and uses the levels of the Ellen Stewart Theatre very effectively. Rob Scallan's lights work very well and cleverly use what is doubtless the general FringeNYC lighting plot.
Unless you are an incurable curmudgeon, you will enjoy this show, no matter whether an opera addict or antagonist. And you will come away thinking about what it means to be an artist in America today. And maybe you'll think of some things you'd like to see changed for the better. That would make this opera grand indeed.