The Ring Cycle (Parts 1-4)
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
April 21, 2012
In his collection Mythologies, Roland Barthes published a short, elucidating essay called "The World of Wrestling," in which he explores how the archetypes of ancient tragedy and comedy are evoked by the excessive spectacle of the American "sport." By extension, the argument he poses is that the great mythological archetypes are resonant throughout our culture, even in ostensibly low-brow entertainments, and that by approaching a subject with deference, we might see in it the patterns of our universal struggle.
All of which is my showy way of setting up what matters here: PL115's The Ring Cycle (Parts 1-4) rocks on so many levels. A rambunctious retelling of Wagner's Ring Cycle set mostly in the milieu of 1980s wrestling culture, this highly imaginative and meticulously staged collaboration between an actor-driven company and writer/director Dave Dalton is both wonderfully stupid and impressively smart, full of irony and yet respectfully wrought. It's pure theatre even as it tries to devolve into empty spectacle, and the layers of meaning pile on through a malleable aesthetic that allows for a multitude of theatrical complexity. Oh, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.
Like Wagner's cycle of what he calls "dramas," the show is organized into four parts, and traces a mythic story, over several generations, of an all-powerful ring that was born from human (well, dwarfish, but you know) greed, and corrupts through its allure the gods of Valhalla until a necessary tragic end brings comeuppance to all. Change the ring to a belt (they do) and the gods into larger-than-life wrestling egos (they do this too), and the reimagining no longer carries the weight of smug cleverness but of inarguable parallel. There's plenty of occasion for them to have mocked Wagner's operatic depth as melodrama, but the committed company doesn't go for easy laughs, instead simply transposing the heightened emotions into a legitimate contemporary framework. So when the silliness happens, when '80s hair metal songs score ridiculous wrestling show-downs (of which there are thankfully many), when the rhythm affects a Looney Tunes freneticism, when the characters demand call-and-response from the audience, it's all honest reaction to a story that doesn't deserve to be reduced into banal psychological realism but demands to be treated as extraordinary.
The fact that we laugh so much is only a result of an aesthetic that also allows for muted moments of real depth. Where the first act (adapted from Das Rheingold) is pretty much a showdown on the mats, the second (adapted from Die Walküre) is set in a white trash living room and thrives as much as shadow and silence as showy spectacle. The title character of the third act (Siegfried) is a heroically dumb fellow but even as Seth Powers stresses his simpleton nature, his heartbreak at having been abandoned never falls away under the comedy. And in the final section (Twilight of the Gods), as Brunhilde wreaks havoc on the world whose greed has forsaken her and negated her faith, the profundity of Wagner's epic isn't lost even if it now splits focus with a delicious, hilarious deconstruction.
It's easy to snidely dismiss Wagner's magnum opus, with its 16-hour run time and its soaring music, as an overblown relic of antiquated styles, but no matter how you like it, such dismissal is necessarily a simplification of his ambition to capture the heights of existence. What PL115 masterfully accomplishes is an infusion of ambition that eschews any reductive simplicity (even though the concept of a wrestling Ring suggests the contrary). This is something not be missed.