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Tommy Lee Jones Goes to the Opera Alone

[The following review was written for the world premiere, in 2013.]

Once again, we are taken by the infinitely fertile minds of the Buntport ensemble, where a real life chance encounter seeing Tommy Lee Jones alone in line at a Santa Fe Opera production of La bohème turns into an astounding and heartwarming piece of theatre.

Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones
Photo courtesy of Buntport Theatre
A near life-size puppet of Tommy Lee sits, lifelessly, at a table in a diner, we assume to be in San Saba, Texas, near one of his ranches, not far from where the actor was born. Across from him sits a mysterious figure, in a black jump suit with a hood that includes screening over the face. The lights dim, an operatic overture fills the theatre, and, one by one, enter the actors who will animate Tommy Lee's Left Hand (Erin Rollman), Right Hand (Evan Weissman), and, to great fanfare, his Head (Brian Colonna), wearing matching black jump suits, just like that of the mysterious figure, who turns out to be the Voice (Erik Edborg).

Tommy Lee Jones with his musical pocketwatch
Tommy Lee Jones
with his musical pocketwatch
Photo courtesy of Buntport Theatre
This is no ordinary puppet. The hands were carved by Kagen Schaefer, a Denver wood artist extraordinaire, and mechanized by Corey Milner, a talented local robotics teacher. The head was a group effort detailed by Rollman. The coordination of Tommy Lee's gestures and actions—including opening and closing a musical pocket watch that plays arias, plus eating a piece of pie and drinking coffee, rolling his eyes, walking, etc.—is reminiscent of the equines in War Horse, which required three people to bring each of them to life.

Hannah Duggan as Jane with Tommy Lee Jones
Hannah Duggan as Jane
with Tommy Lee Jones
Photo courtesy of Buntport Theatre

Jones' fourth-wall monologue—astounding in scope and maturity, and genuinely humorous—covering everything from the pie and philosophic musings on life to the finer points of Puccini's operas, is interrupted by occasional forays back to three-wall artifice, where he and the waitress, Jane (Hannah Duggan), trade small talk as well as high-brow speculation on possible endings for Turandot, which Puccini famously never finished. Edborg's does great emotive work as the Voice, well nuanced, with just a twinge of Texas twang.

Despite his rapture over Rudolpho's arias and the adaptations of melodies from La bohème into hit songs in the '50's (great pantomime by Duggan on "Don't You Know?," a big hit for Della Reese in 1959), Tommy Lee is most fond of Turandot, since it has the most potential to be different every night, which is a clue that the ending of this piece is going to be a total surprise.

As usual, the Buntport players find wonderful low-tech solutions to enthrall and surprise us; for example, Jane explains in detail the plot of Turandot using the silverware and the condiments at Tommy Lee's table. We'll avoid a spoiler alert and let you try to imagine how this might go.

Hannah Duggan as Jane and Tommy Lee Jones
Hannah Duggan as Jane
and Tommy Lee Jones
Photo courtesy of Buntport Theatre
As Tommy Lee Jones points out, there are three types of people when it comes to opera: those who consider it the "o" word, and assiduously avoid it; those who have never thought about it; and opera snobs, who have no time for Puccini. Granted, Puccini can be seen as cloying and manipulative, as Tommy Lee points out, but he also wisely notes that if you can't handle it, you've probably never been in love. As an example, the play offers us clips from Jussi Björling singing one of the most cherished arias of all time, "Nissun dorma," from Turandot. Who is Jussi Björling? The late great Luciano Pavarotti once remarked, when someone compared him to Björling, "Please, I'm only mortal!" Listen to this rendition (wait a few moments for it to start). Be sure to catch the ending. Have you ever hear a tenor reach these heights? And this is an old, low-quality recording. There are some recordings that include the chorus, but ...

Buntport Theatre's revival of Tommy Lee Jones goes to the opera alone runs through January 31st. 720-946-1388 or www.buntport.com.

Bob Bows

 

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