There is an adage among directors of Shakespeare: You don’t just do “Hamlet,” you first must have a Hamlet.
In other words, before you launch into staging an intricately layered piece of dramatic writing, be sure you start with a concrete foundation.
At the always-ambitious Station Theatre in Urbana, director Tania Arazi Coambs has assembled many of parts necessary for Claire van Kampen’s “Farinelli and the King,” even if the structure had not cured by Thursday’s opening night. In James Hevel, Coambs has cast an accomplished young singer as Farinelli, the famed 18th century castrato who had extraordinary vocal range and power.
Those who saw the play in London or New York (or have read it) may be surprised to find that a key element of Kampen’s dramaturgy has been altered. A program note from the playwright explains to Station audiences that “previous productions” of the play had two Farinellis, which emphasized the dual nature of the character. In those earlier productions, one actor performed the operatic singing role and another acted the playwright’s words.
Although the author does not address the issue in her note, it may be that the duality of Farinelli’s character requires two actors to strike the complex emotional chords inherent in it. Hevel best manages to convey Farinelli’s inner state when singing the affecting arias of Nicola Porpora and G.F. Handel that are scattered throughout the performance. Chia-ying Chan performs the musical accompaniment with unassuming energy.
What of the titular king, then?
In the decision to have one performer portray Farinelli, the parallels between the singer and the depressed, occasionally catatonic King Philip V of Spain (rendered here as “Philippe”) become muddled. Kampen’s play paints the two men as trapped in their lives by nature and circumstance, but with their eyes on the stars and their ears tuned to “the music of the spheres.”
The psychic distress of Philippe (Aaron Miller) is healed by the piercing, ethereal voice of Farinelli. For his part, the singer feels renewed, truly heard and seen by the king. The two men become soul mates, but not in a romantic sense. Miller’s wild-eyed monarch is a sometimes-vexing counterpoint to Farinelli, though his pastoral second-act monologue shows a subtlety to be encouraged.
The dramatic tension, when it arises, comes from the court intrigues of the king’s wife, Isabella (Cara Maurizi), who tries to protect her husband from the machinations of his chief councilor, Don Sebastian (Rodney Woodworth). The play is nominally about the singer and the king, but it is Isabella who brings the two men together in her search for something to soothe the king’s spirit. Along the way, Isabella and Farinelli begin to have feelings for one another, leading to unhappy ruptures among the trio.
It is always impressive to see how the Station Theater finds ways to present complicated works in its tiny space. In “Farinelli,” the intricacies very nearly bring the production to a halt several times as scene shifts drag and acting cues lag. A superfluous opening scene, which is nowhere in the published text, could be cut and save several minutes. As it stands now, the entire performance is easily 10 minutes too long.
Brian Hagy richly lights the sumptuous costumes by Brianna Malotke and well-crafted scenic details of Yvonne Tessman. In a space the size of the Station, less can often be more.
In that spirit, give us more, please.