Thursday, March 21, 2019

Original Art Sundays (Thrusday) No. 262: MN Opera: The Fix

I have never had a happy relationship with sports. I was uncoordinated, socially awkward, and I got beat up regularly in gym class, to the point at which I saw the phrase "gym class" as an oxymoron.
The only sports at which gave me any degree of pleasure were the solitary sports, particularly swimming.
Despite this, I developed some very small skills at basketball and baseball.
In the 1980s, I also developed a fascination with the work of independent filmmaker John Sayles, whose film Eight Men Out dealt with baseball in a very different way than most plucky sports films. Sayles' work dealt with baseball's first, and possibly biggest, scandal, as did the MN Opera's newest production.
With this framing the event, I was intrigued to attend the newly commissioned work The Fix, staged by MN Opera. The work did not disappoint.
Warning: spoiler abound below.

Based on the 1919 World Series, which was thrown by the Chicago White Sox, The Fix concentrates on a few primary characters: "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, his wife Katie, his teammate "Chick" Gandil, and sports writer Ring Lardner.
The opera brings out multiple aspects of the story, not the least of which is owner Charles Comiskey's cheating his own players of earned bonuses. This is the catalyst that leads the players to consider throwing the game. Someone is being paid exorbitant sums for their work. Why aren't they?
I would have liked to see this aspect of the story played up more. It does come across, just not as strongly as I thought it might have.
Joe is cast as the most moral of the lot, the Chicago Black Sox, as the team came to be known after the scandal was made public. Once Joe agrees to taking the bribes, the fix is in. Pitcher Eddie Cicotte hitting the first batter with a pitch. This is the signal that cinches the deal. The eight players are throwing the World Series.
However, this sits badly with the team. Four games in, down three to one, Joe declares, "it's hard to play bad." Inspired by Joe, the Sox win the next two. It's only when Katie's life is threatened that the last game of the series is thrown.
This series was also unusual, in that it was a nine game series, not the usual seven.
Commissioner Mountain Landis,
performed by Christian Zaremba
The following year, the Sox make it to the Series again. Katie has been Joe's guiding light, and at her urging, Joe, not the sharpest tack in the drawer, goes to attorney Alfred Austrian and confesses, after signing a waiver of immunity.
A trial ensues.
A young fan, desperate to continue admiring his hero, was the first to say the now classic phrase, "say it ain't so, Joe!" 
Katie and Joe- quick sketch
Despite a not guilty verdict, newly appointed baseball commissioner Mountain Landis rules the involved players barred from professional baseball for life.
This effectively ends not only the players' careers, but writer Ring Lardner's as well. Larnder, now an alcoholic and stricken with tuberculosis, happens on a member of the Eight, who tells him of a chance meeting with Joe, now a dry goods store clerk. Joe is hollow and drab, lacking the fire of the one thing besides his marriage that gave his life purpose- playing ball.
Like all MN Opera productions, this is brilliantly staged. The stands, populated by static marionettes, are the backdrop for the whole opera. The team name, with the word "white" replaced by the "black" at a pivotal moment, is stark, as are the shots of the eight offending players.
Mobile set pieces create locker rooms, speakeasies, interrogation rooms, courtrooms and storefronts with fluid ease.
Urgency and inevitability dominate the production. The questions of how one does right after being wronged, how one does right after doing wrong, and how one lives with the consequences of their actions are presented starkly. The end offers a redeeming moment, the shining possibility of once more playing the game for the sheer joy of it.
Ring Lardner
Joshua Dennis does a powerful and sensitive turn as Shoeless Joe, while Jasmine Habersham gives dignity and conviction the role of his wife Katie. Wei Wu also stands out as Joe's buddy "Chick". MN Opera resident artist Kelly Margraf is both aggressive and vulnerable as Ring Lardner. Artist alum Christian Zaremba brings bombast to the role of Mountain Landis, reminding me alternately of Christopher Walken and the Daredevil villain The Owl in his bearing.
The work makes effective, but not cliched, use of its historical framework. Nuances of Prohibition and flappers enhance the atmosphere.
I went into this one with some apprehension. Not being much on sports (see above), I had difficulty imagining the emotional possibilities and opportunities this story could present. I didn't think it would engage me.
The Fix moves well and engages on many levels. Setting, libretto, score and performance are all strong. The opera runs through March 24. You are eagerly encouraged to attend!