Reviewed by Joseph Conway
Reading a simple plot synopsis of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Poisoned Kiss leads one to believe that the production will transport its audience into a whimsical and wondrous medieval fairy tale where love and sorcery intertwine in complex webs of intrigue and romance. The reality is a bit less fanciful but no less whimsical, and about a thousand times more hilarious than anyone in the audience could have expected. The end result of Williams’ obscure opera is an adventurous romp through the often violent clashes between the mortal enemies of musical comedy and high drama. If you can forgive the almost audible “clunk” heard when the show abruptly changes gears between delightfully dry, self-referential humor and far-too-serious-to-be-serious drama, then you’ll find a lot to love in this rarely seen opera.
Musically, The Bronx Opera does a fantastic job of bringing the gorgeous score to life. Conductor Michael Spierman pulls the orchestra and cast together with fluidity and grace, even on the thankfully rare occasions when the chorus stumbles off beat. The entire cast deserves a nod for being almost universally excellent in the vocal arts, projecting resonant power and articulation throughout the theater. When the cast is rallied behind the often commanding leads, the performance sounds second to none.
As good as the show sounds, however, the visual aspect can be incredibly bland throughout much of the show. The bare, spartan set is at first given life and depth by way of a projector, transporting the show into a surprisingly beautiful enchanted forest. Once into the second and third acts, however, the projections only serve to enhance the bleakness of the stage. At times, the imagery even served to distract me from the actors on the stage. Costumes deserve a special note here, as well. The more modern attire worn by the cast is often underwhelming, with chorus members being almost criminally bland. The odd juxtaposition of the ensembles simple white clothing and silly hats or masks completely took me out of the show and just screamed of a lacking budget.
Thankfully, all can be forgiven thanks to the shows fantastic brand of biting, B-movie humor, which comes across especially well in the gloriously overdramatic gesticulations of Michael Blake O’Hearn as Dipsacus, magician extraordinaire. Tynan Davis’ interpretation of Angelica is marvelously dry, jaded and witty. Her, alongside the bumbling antics of Gallanthus, played by Jason Coffey, make me almost wish they weren’t a mere subplot. Amaryllus and Tormentilla (what a name) played by Rogelio Penaverde Jr. and Julie-Anne Hamula respectively, complement each other quite nicely on stage. Her rampant vapidity underscores a very dark sense of humor, making it easier to digest. Sadly, Amaryllus’ ridiculous costume doesn’t go down easy and makes it difficult to take him seriously. It’s such a shame that these two charismatic individuals are wasted in the more serious parts of the show, all of which seem out of place and somewhat unwelcome.
Ultimately, it comes down to Carolyn Sebron as the Empress to bring back the subtle, yet hilarious, sense of humor in the show and drag us back out from the oppressive drama that so defines the second act. A “Three Stooges” esque trio of hobgoblins played by Andrew Klima, Luis Gonzalez, and Robert C. Joubert, always brightens the mood onstage as they strike an excellent balance between playful tomfoolery and devious mischief. I can’t help but think that these tricksters were playing a joke on the audience when the cast goes up for a faux curtain call, only to go on with the remaining 5 minutes of the show.
In all, The Bronx Opera’s performance of The Poisoned Kiss will provide a good laugh or two, if not always a laugh that the cast intended. The music is excellent even if the visuals suffer. This kiss is one you may very well enjoy, but beware the venom laced within.
Joseph Conway writes for several ‘zines on topics of theater, film, and music.