A non-operatic ‘Ring Cycle’

It’s audacious and almost insanely ambitious. A six-hour stage adaptation of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, without all the opera music? Who would attempt such a thing? Blake Montgomery and The Building Stage, that’s who. Montgomery’s been running this unusually creative theatrical company on Chicago’s near West Side, for four and a half years now, and this production is his biggest project yet.

Don’t be scared off by that humongous running time. Truth be told, the show is six hours long if you include a couple of 10-minute intermission and a 45-minute dinner break. So, that’s what? A little less than five hours of actual theater. And at Saturday’s press opening, that time almost seemed to fly by. This is not a flawless production, but it certainly holds your attention.

Co-directed by Montgomery and Joanie Schultz, The Ring Cycle tells the same stories from German and Norse mythology that inspired Richard Wagner’s even longer cycle of operas, as well as the lesser-known but excellent silent films by Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen. There are a couple of songs in this stage version, but no arias. Some of Wagner’s themes surface in the pulsing rock chords played by Kevin O’Donnell and his band.

This Ring Cycle takes place on a stage that’s mostly bare. Shadows, marionette-like props and circus arts are used to create a world of dwarves, dragons, Valkyries and magic helmets. This is the sort of thing Mary Zimmerman has often done in her myth-inspired plays. The Ring Cycle achieves some magic moments with these simple elements, but it has trouble sustaining the magic for all six hours. Some of the costumes are jarringly contemporary, and the plain set is too dull of a backdrop for the fantastic plot that’s unfolding … and unfolding and unfolding.

Certainly, The Ring Cycle could be condensed to a shorter length, but to be fair, a hell of a lot happens over the course of those six hours. This is epic stuff: love, betrayal, treachery, the battle for power. In its best passages, The Ring Cycle bursts with poetic beauty and deep emotions. There’s a Shakespearean quality to the romance and the tragedy. The words, adapted from the librettos of Wagner’s operas, can be truly beautiful.

And yet, other scenes are filled with clunky exposition. The attempts at comedy feel labored. Some cast members spout their lines in an amateurish style, lacking any sense of nuance. Thankfully, a few of the leading actors give good performances, conveying more genuine emotions. Nick Vidal is particularly good as the naïve hero Siegfried, and Darci Nalepa gives the saga its emotional center as the fierce Brünnhilde.

The creative team at The Building Stage has been working for months to bring together this epic production. As it stands right now, it feels like it needs further work. As uneven as it is, however, it still makes for a fairly enjoyable immersion in a fantastic world.
(Photo by Michael Brosilow.)