The Rat King Rock Opera
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 20, 2007
The Rat King Rock Opera is not really an opera, not a conventional one anyway. There aren't any arias and the singers do not dig deep into their diaphragms and their voices do not rise majestically to the far ends of the theatre.
The Rat King Rock Opera doesn't deal in Rock 'n' Roll either. The songs are simple, catchy, sometimes witty ditties that reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan creations as well as the more playful parts of Mozart's The Magic Flute.
There is a Rat King though, and at the beginning of the show we learn via a shadow play projected onto a white sheet that he was raised among rats, lived among humans, and after a series of adventures, was cast out to live among the rats again. The shadow play—epic in scope, Greek in tone—deposits the Rat King onto the shores of a strange and distant land, where nothing grows. A chorus of singing rats surrounds him. He is seeking a queen.
In this land dwells Ed Cannon, a tall, thin pedantic scientist with a British accent who speaks in verse. He shares the flat with his daughter Carlyn, an isolated, strong-willed woman whose womb is the only fertile oasis in an otherwise barren wasteland. Why the land is barren is never stated but a charming song sung by the ghost of Carlyn's dead sister strongly suggests that nuclear fallout might have something to do with it. Ed spends most of his day taking phone calls from Carlyn's potential suitors and putting the finishing touches on his ultimate invention, an unnamed machine which sits on the stage underneath a white sheet and resembles a cotton-covered Cousin It with red, glowing eyes. One day, the Rat King arrives disguised as an assistant named Carson and, much to Ed's dismay, Carlyn falls for him. Carson wants to take Carlyn for his queen and the remainder of the play deals with the consequences of the couple's attraction.
Or does it? Whether or not you like The Rat King Rock Opera will depend on the extent of your patience and your love of puzzles because the show, while dynamic, is not traditionally put together. Maggie MacDonald's ingenious script, which speaks in poetic metaphor and doles out plot, character, and themes at random moments with random connections, would definitely benefit from more forceful directorial discipline: props appear out of no relationship to the given world, themes are picked up and put down at a moment's notice, characters act for no reason other than the script demands it.
But if you can get past these points there are definitely gems to unearth. MacDonald has a way with words. Her songs and script crackle with wit and ingenuity. Bob Wiseman and Laura Barrett's music is easy on the ears and does a nice job supporting and even subverting the show's tone. Keith Cole's performance as Carlyn's final suitor combines the character's playful absurdity with an underlying tone of the maniacal. And Magali Meagher's strong and straightforward performance as Carlyn effectively centers the surrounding chaos.