Cher Public

BASTA: Ballet up to the bar

“C’mon boys! Follow my booty!”

Doomed Lucia di Lammermoor was only halfway through her Mad Scene at the time of the incident. 

Blood-soaked, frayed, and terrifically glamorous on opening night of the Algonquin Opera’s blockbuster production, star soprano Katarina Nippelnaya—controversial Putin acolyte and reigning czarina of the Kirov—had already poured the entirety of her anima into Acts One and Two. The opera’s third act, though, was to be her true coronation.

Floating through the spooky opening strains of “Il dolce suono,” Nippelnaya steadied herself against a pillar stage-left, and allowed the voice not to take flight so much as surrender itself. She started her duet with the glass harmonica.

Un’armonia celeste. Who hears it? Nessuno, nessuno, nessuno…

And then, a murmuring from below, followed by a gasp. Could it be—why yes, it must be her estranged lover, Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood, returned to rescue her! Nippelnaya looked out assuredly into the audience, expecting to find her handsome tenor waiting atop his steed.

Another gasp. Then another. A surf of gasps seemed to sweep through the starboard side of the audience, and crest before lapping at the Russian songbird.

And then, intrusively, a consternated scream from a female spectator.

Vot eez goink on?!

The soprano did a sudden furious about-face to the podium, where Maestro Sal Piesessenbitz, too, was anxiously trying his utmost to source the commotion.

Wheeling himself down the aisle from the back exit at a moderate clip, not Edgardo, but former Algonquin music director Jerold Offerman could be seen brandishing what several witnesses later agreed was a medium-sized pipe wrench high over his head. Someone, somehow, must have let him into the auditorium at the top of Act Three.

“I AM NOT FLUSHIBLE!” he could be heard shouting. “YOU WILL NOT FLUSH ME!!”

About midway down the aisle, with attendees beginning to take note of the legless man with the toothed Stillson adjustable spanner, the ousted maestro let out a pronounced Indian battle cry, a culturally risqué whoop-whoop-WHOOOOOOOP, and proceeded to roll down the gangway, a tutta velocità, toward the orchestra.

Admittedly, the Algonquin ushers had not been trained for such an occurrence, though several seemed to know instinctively what to do.

Among the more useful employees, corn-fed Iowan named Drexel and a former high-school triathlete from Houston (“Call me Madge!”) both began to charge p.d.q. at the wheelchaired whooper, where they then upset his semi-motorized vehicle, knocking—to the honking, flailing accompaniment of an orchestra that had just slipped out of alignment—the bellowing, weaponized little man unceremoniously to the floor and setting the pipe wrench soaring into the audience.

The next day’s local cable news channels all breathlessly reported that even from the carpet, Maestro Offerman’s apparent mission could not be derailed. Hand over hand, trailed by his leg stumps, the differently-abled former administrator began pulling himself toward the orchestra pit; although it was as yet unclear, especially at this stage, exactly what he thought he could accomplish, bereft of wheelchair as he was.

By then Offerman was mere feet from the conductor, thrashing as Call-Me-Madge and Drexel the Cornfed struggled to pin him down. With the orchestra stopped and the house lights now up, audience members felt relieved of their seats, and a sizable crowd began to congeal around the former director. Scattering like cockroaches, the actors and musicians all scrambled to hide themselves, bounding for the wings.

And now the house managers, too, were trundling down the aisle, followed by security. One blue-suited official started pushing the well-heeled onlookers aside.

“People, please, make some space. People!”

A nearby manager from Yalta was scratching his head. “Oy-yoi-yoi-yoi. Vhere’s that thing—vot is it—his, er, spessial chair?”

Grabbing Offerman by the arms, a couple of cops, both equally new to the scene, located Offerman’s mechanized litter by a confused octogenarian who was trapped in row F and pushed it forcefully toward the masses.

Offerman, stunned to silence by the commotion and clearly inebriated, was hoisted by Drexel and a young police officer into his chair, strapped in, handcuffed, and wheeled briskly away to a car parked outside.

A figure sporting a crisp black tuxedo was now issuing commands center stage. This was Algonquin general manager Carlos Alberti himself; he had taken to the proscenium in a vain attempt to soothe the audience.

“No need to leave, folks. There will be a brief, ten-minute intermission, and then we return. The show must go on! Sorry about this.”

Beside the towering sets built to evoke Glamis Castle, the statuesque Alberti looked positively dwarfed to those watching. Soon the modern sound system he’d lobbied so aggressively to have installed in the lobby of the 1960s theatre would beep to life and coax people back to their seats for the remainder of act three.

Soon, he prayed through clenched teeth, it would all be business as usual.

Most of the supernumeraries in attendance for the Bison Don’t Cry rehearsal at Porky’s the following morning were far too caught up in their “movement work” to catch the headlines out of the Algonquin.

Choreographer Vanessa Spoleto, mainstay of the Big Apple Singing Theater Association’s creative team, had been brought in that day to take the supers through some peripheral dance steps, and she was feeling enthusiastic abut their progress.

“Oow-weeeee!” she drawled. “That sure is some fahn hip-swingin’ there!”

Spoleto—though born to a lusty Italian family in Toms River, New Jersey—had impulsively met, married, and divorced a strapping real estate agent from Georgia and then spent a goodly portion of her entertainment career as an Atlanta-based dance coach to kewpie-faced pageant contestants.

Off the clock, she’d become a kind of informal life guru to the housewives and moms of Inman Park, and had cultivated, over the course of several decades and several ambiguously-oriented relationships with these women, a twangy, ductile manner of speaking that later became her pride and joy.

To be brutally honest, Evan Ingersoll found the dialect a trifle forced and pretentious. But Spoleto he enjoyed. He found her antics charming.

They were running through a pivotal episode in the first act of the gay buffalo herder opera: when boyish (i.e. hot) cowhand Atkins Brady first locks eyes with the ill-tempered (i.e. mega-hot) herder Barrett Della Casa at the Prairie Mess Hall, a jukebox diner in rural South Dakota.

Right before their first duet (“Can you feel the lunch tonight”), a gaggle of bechapped toughs burst in and interrupt the scene with a do-si-do that starts with grands battements and ends with coups de navaja.

The whole scenario, according to BASTA director Joey Piccata, is “every inch a moment of arch symbolism,” meant to convey the volatility of the region, the kind of emotional roulette one often finds, or at least one often imagines finding, in the Great Plains.

Plinking his way on the upright through composer Zack Wedgie’s diegetic soundtrack to the scene, music director Robert Richard (“Dick”) Spandez sat to the side and waited for his cues from Spoleto. That morning, the choreographer’s aim wasn’t to make full-fledged dancers out of her charges—no, there were hired professionals for that—but to give the supers the “tools” necessary to “suggest dance” before the big knife fight.

“C’mon boys,” Spoleto winked, popping her hip out suggestively. “Follow my booty. We are gonna shakity-shake it for the rafters today!”

Evan and fellow super Gus Rippon stifled their confusion and followed Spoleto’s various shakes, dips, hops, and lunges up and down the pretend “stage” as best they could. Not a natural dancer though a quick study, Evan assimilated the steps with enough grace to avoid any embarrassing special attention from the choreographer.

Gus, meanwhile, was another story.

“C’mon Mister Guster, what in the hell are you doing over there, lookin’ all like the coyote who hooched up on Sweetwater?”

Gus had no idea what any of it meant, but he knew he was in trouble. Thrusting left when the rest of the corps thrust right—oopsy-daisy!—he nearly took a fellow super out with his elbow when they all marched in place.

“Jesus, dude,” the castmate snarled. “Watch where you swing that thing.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Gus stammered, backing into Evan and tripping on his heel.

“The darker the berry, honey,” moaned Evan, quoting from his favorite scene in Fameand trying desperately to suppress his laughter.

“What on earth is going on back there?” the dance instructor called out, chagrined. “Dick, Dick… hey Dick? Can you cool it for a second?”

Spoleto frowned at the accompanist, and the music stopped. “If you all want to leave, you know you can. But please don’t waste my time.”

“Now,” she said, after a moment’s pause, heading to a box in the corner of the room. “Let me show you how the brawl is gonna go. I have these fake Bowie knives, and I want you to be professional with them.”

She started passing them out to each super. “See how they retract?”

Evan held his knife and pressed the tip into his arm. It collapsed into its shell, leaving the uncanny impression that he was cutting himself.

Spoleto continued. “I want you each to find a partner by approximate size. Mister Guster, you go with Jimbers over there. Evan, will you and, uh, Nixon pair up please?”

Evan and Nixon looked at each other. Evan made a face and walked over to his handsome associate, who cocked an eyebrow at him. Evan felt his cheeks flush.

“Actually, Evan and Nixon? Can you two be my guinea pigs for a moment? Come over here; I want you to show the rest how it’s done.”

Evan and Nixon stood before the rest of the boys as Spoleto gave her instructions. “Good! Thanks! Now, for the fight, the shorter of each pair will leap like a squirrel onto the back of the other and hold the knife right below the chin, like so. This has to happen quickly, but very carefully. If we do this right, though, it’s going to look incredible!”

Evan was shorter, so it was his job to mount Nixon from behind.

Nixon’s back was shingly and muscular, Evan thought, so that shinnying up him felt not unlike an exercise in rock climbing.

“Oof,” he grunted in Nixon’s ear.

“Mmm,” Nixon groaned, his breath form up close smelling of fresh pine.

“Oh how nice!” gushed the choreographer. “Now Evan, just take out your knife and stick it right there—yeah, exactly, right down there, near the jugular.”

Evan pulled his knife out. He prodded it against Nixon’s beard.

And—ugh, an accident!

Illustration by Ben A. Cohen