Baptizing a musical
Notre Dame’s Department of Film, Television, and Theatre recently staged the classic musical comedy Pippin. The show was pitched and directed by senior Nick Buranicz, who recently directed and starred in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead last spring. Pippin ran three sold-out shows October 7-9.
The plot of Pippin can be described in two ways: the central plot and the “meta” plot. On the surface, the show follows the life of Pippin, the pseudo-historical son of Charlemagne. His life is characterized by an eager hunt for something truly fulfilling; he tries a life of glory in war, a life of simple hedonism (which quickly devolves into sexual indulgence), a life in politics, etc. Pippin’s search becomes hopeful when he is thrust into the life of a family. With Catherine and her son, Theo, Pippin appears to be more satisfied than he ever had been. However, this does not last, and Pippin pulls away from his family, convinced there must be something more. It is not long before he realizes that the world has nothing better to offer and is reunited with Catherine and Theo.
At this level, the show shines as a comedy. The crew of players is especially to be praised for this; nearly every moment the players were on stage, the audience was overwhelmed with and delighted by their clowning and playing around. Buranicz’s minimalist staging (only blue mats were used for the set) also provided many opportunities for light-hearted comedy. There was particular levity and glee at the performances of a real puppy and a stuffed duck.
The show was very well-cast, boasting a veteran crew of actors. Evelyn Berry performed the Leading Player’s role quite well, capturing both the dazzling and sinister sides of her character; Timothy Merkle put on a hilarious performance as Charlemagne, and his improvisational talent shone; Kate Turner’s Catherine was incredibly endearing, persuasive, and tender.
While every actor deserves a paragraph of lauds, Carlos Macias’ performance in particular should be noted. Macias was faced not only with the daunting task of playing the leading man; he was also faced with a quite demanding role as a singer. The show’s music asks much of Pippin, and Macias more than rose to the occasion. His musical performance elevated the show, and in a story about fleeting pleasures, he gave the audience something really beautiful to enjoy.
At the “meta level,” however, the show takes on a more provocative and sinister tone. The show is narrated by the Leading Player, who acknowledges that the musical is simply a show put on by actors. She is supported by the other players, who together make up the ensemble and happily perform what the Leading Player directs. The Leading Player tells the audience that this is Pippin’s “first time playing the role.” Throughout the show, the Leading Player coaxes a despairing Pippin onward to continue trying each new lifestyle. The show’s sinister side shows when the Leading Player comes into conflict with the “player” playing Catherine. When Catherine really falls in love with Pippin, the Leading Player eerily interrupts the scene and harshly reminds her that her role is to be a nag, not to fall in love.
A new struggle is introduced and comes to a head with the finale. In the Leading Player’s mind, this great cyclical show should end with the leading man leaping into a fire from a great height and perishing spectacularly. But this time, Pippin and Catherine refuse to play their parts as prescribed by the Leading Player any longer. The Leading Player, furious, shuts down the production, turning the lights off, removing costumes, even yelling at the pit orchestra to cease playing.
The musical’s ending, which has gone through various iterations, was of particular interest to Buranicz. The final moment of the show is critical to its overall message. The most popular ending features Theo (Catherine’s son) returning to the empty stage. The Leading Player comes out again, the lights raise, and it is implied that Theo falls into the same cycle as Pippin, thus allowing the show to “go on.” However, other endings have also circulated, and Buranicz was firmly convinced that Pippin was well-suited to a more Catholic message. He said, “What was really nice about this show in particular, especially as compared with [Rosencratz and Guildenstern], was that the message I wanted to put forth was already intrinsic to Pippin as written, which is surprising since it came out of the counterculture of the 60s/70s. My task was how to highlight it and bring it forth with a Catholic bent.”
Buranicz’s ending did feature Theo wandering back onstage and the players eerily crawling back to meet him with creepy smiles. However, at the last second before the lights cut out, we see Theo turn his back on the Leading Player and return to his parents. On opening night, Theo’s decision was met with gasps of relief and enthusiastic applause. Buranicz’s direction in this moment changed the entire show. If Theo accepts the Leading Player’s offer, then the show offers a rather damning philosophy about man’s inability to be redeemed or to change his ways; it becomes a nihilistic cycle which never ends and in which sons never learn from the sins of the father.
However, Buranicz’s take offers a breath of hope. Perhaps sons can learn from their fathers; perhaps there is an alternative to damnation; perhaps man can be redeemed, if only he has eyes to see.
James Whitaker is a graduate student with the Theology department. He had auditioned for the role of “Otto the Duck,” but was rejected. If you would like to see his audition tape, email email@example.com.
Photo Credit: The Notre Dame Observer.