The Last Castrato
nytheatre.com review by Montserrat Mendez
November 18, 2010
Art imitates life. Life imitates art. And Art is just Brutal. Especially for the young men of this play, the last line of Castrati—young boys whose voices were "surgically" kept in the high range of a female, in order to create "a singing machine."
The play begins with the arrival of Moreschi, the last castrato, a young man with a legendary voice who will join the last surviving remnants of the Baroque Era at the Vatican in the Pope's Sistine Chapel Choir. Awaiting his arrival is the intensely intense Cesari, a castrato of questionable sanity, who already loves Moreschi, even though he has yet to meet him. Add to the mix Mrs. Bristed and Lillie, two ladies of society who have come to the Vatican to employ the voice of Moreschi; and two servants of the church, Perosi and Sarto, who will eventually become Pope Pius X. And finally Fred, a gentleman who works for the Gramophone Company that would eventually become the RCA record empire.
To see such a cast list, one would think the play to be incredibly complicated. But playwright Guy Fredrick Glass pulls off neat balancing act of structure and form, briskly moving from one scene to the next, making sure that the throughline of the play allows for a progression of story. If I had to compare it to any style, I would compare it most to a Restoration Drama, which allows for several strands of story to be introduced and slowly braids them until they come together almost quite beautifully at the end.
Great stories speak to each of us individually. And so, while some people may walk away with a thorough understanding of this man's life, or with a story of victory over great adversity, or the obvious theme of sometimes out of suffering comes great art. I was most touched by the love story in the play. Moreschi falls in love with Lillie, but he is unable to love her like a man. As a Castrato, he cannot make love. Which led me to exit the theatre pondering the question, can romantic love exist without sex? If you loved someone and that person could not have sex, could love flourish? Is love in the heart or in the mind? Or both? What do you do when you have been so damaged that you cannot properly love another human being? I was absolutely heart-wrenched for this young man. And yet he found a way to overcome his one deficiency and lead a great life. He had his children; they were just of an artistic kind. Cue tears!
Director John Henry Davis splendidly uses all manner of resources to tell the story. He uses a gorgeous multi-level set, designed by Andreea Mincic, to guide the action, with a stunning lighting design by Mark T. Simpson. He places singer Joseph Hill on the highest level, who sings the arias that Moreschi himself would have sung in that period. Let me just tell you, it makes for some of the most beautiful transitions I have ever seen on stage. And costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo outdoes herself. All of these elements combined with musical director Lewis R. Baratz's arrangements are orchestrated to create an almost Gothic mood, that secretive Victorian sense and sensibility, that veils eroticism in fear, mystery, and religion.
The performers are all top-notch, giving brave, exhilarating performances. Jacob Pinion excels as our last castrato, Moreschi, and his scenes with Melissa Miller's Lillie, are flirtatious, childlike, and heartbreakingly real. Miller is one of those actors who knows how to score a moment of silence; her eyes alone do more than any monologue I've ever heard, and her work here is deserving of recognition. Doug Kreeger has the difficult task of creating the young castrato, Cesari, who has all but lost his mind at the beginning of the play. He creates a fascinating psychological study of a man whose identity was all but stolen when he was castrated at a young age, and who cannot understand who he is or where he belongs. This would all be doom and gloom if not for the brilliant comic timing of Bethe B. Austin, who, as Mrs. Bristed, enters the play a new Catholic and exits the play with perhaps the happiest twist in any play I've recently seen. She is a joy to watch! The rest of the cast—Frank Anderson, Abe Goldfarb, Jonathan Tindle, and Liam Torres—all deliver the goods.
The Last Castrato is a play I will talk about, because it manages to be both a period piece and to speak to modern concerns about art and love. It is one of those uncommon plays that doesn't just tell the story of a man, but manages to explore the universe of his feelings, of how from desire we manage to damage others, damage ourselves, but also manage to create lasting beauty. It speaks about people who cage themselves in their beliefs, and are lonely and afraid. But then, the unexpected happens, yes, something miraculous and godly that gives the truly worthy a chance to capture immortality.