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Theatre Review

Monsters and Prodigies Begins as Allegory, But Dissolves into Camp

January 24, 2009 - Chapel Hill, NC:

As part of Carolina Performing Arts’ World Stage series, Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes of Mexico brought to the Memorial Hall stage at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a form of lampoon entitled Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati. On a blank set and using only a septet of actors, the troupe uses a number of different means, from nudity to slapstick, to stick it to the three-century history that they came to portray. The interesting thing about this so-called lampoon is that, though we are already inclined to laugh, we don’t; this despite the fact that there is plenty of opportunity.

At the beginning of the 18th century, a two-headed barber-surgeon named Jean-Ambroise Paré (Raul Roman and Gaston Yanes) begins castrating young boys with the interest of preserving their high, sweet soprano voices. This two-headed monster surgeon even performs a mock castration, to educate the audience. Through everything he/they do, Paré keeps up a constant patter of history, regaling us with how these singers train, how they live, what stress they survive, ad infinitum. Our virtuoso, Javier Medina, indeed seems to be able to reach such divine vocal calisthenics quite easily. He performs many times, and we hear a measure of what kind of voice a true castrato had.

But if we have come to witness history, we seem to be missing something. Monsters and Prodigies, you see, is spoken in Spanish with English superscripts. And while for the most part this is true, it is not always the case. A great deal goes on onstage while there is nothing at all in the superscript box. Those of us without the benefit of Spanish miss a great deal. We come to know Chiron (Miguel Angel Lopez), the monster who rages against this abomination. We also learn of Baldessarre Galuppi, the Teacher who plays the harpsichord and trains these many students. There is a Sulaiman (Kaveh Parmas), or servant, or, for lack of a better term, clown. We even recognize, when he appears, Napoleon Bonaparte (Luis Fernando Villegas), who would bring all this down with a sudden cannon shot. The attempt does, at least, silence the cacophony for a few seconds.

But whether we have come to witness history or humor, we are not amused. The laughs are not loud, nor are there many of them. The side aisles are being used by those who would escape; and several do before the beginning of the bread fight, during which many soft buns are hurled across the stage and into the audience. The performance also came with a heckler, whether well-placed or not, who went on at quite a clip for several minutes regarding why the show should have been done in English. She was apparently quite irate.

Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes performed their history quickly, without intermission. It was a rather swift two hours, but that is not necessarily a good thing. Riotous or not, when most of what you are hearing makes no sense, you are lost. And in this case, language was not the only reason why we were lost. Even with the superscripts, most of Monsters and Prodigies escaped the audience. For their part, the audience made good their escape after only a polite applause.