John Malkovich, in silk knickers, wig and waistcoat, plays Casanova in Michael Sturminger and Martin Haselbock’s intriguing show “The Giacomo Variations.”
Billed somewhat ambivalently as a “chamber opera play,” it uses the Venetian libertine’s friendships with Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte to gild a conventional genre work -- with death imminent, an adventurer recounts his exploits mixing self-justification and regret -- with arias from “Cosi fan tutte,” “Nozze di Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”
The City Center stage is filled with the bodices and enormous skirts of three period gowns (sets and costumes by Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser) that hide Casanova’s writing desk, bedroom and living quarters on the estate of Count Waldstein, where he spent his final years as librarian while writing his memoirs.
When a long-ago lover Elisa (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) appears to read the book, the couple are thrown back to earlier versions of themselves and others who figured in Casanova’s bed-hopping.
The younger selves are played by the excellent soprano Sophie Klussman and baritone Daniel Schmutzhard, accompanied by the Orchester Wiener Akademie under Hasselbock’s direction.
Older Giacomo supplies his younger and somewhat befuddled self with condoms of various outlandish sizes to prevent, he explains, “disease and offspring, both of which I abhor.”
The text is mined with anachronisms (“What the hell is going on here?”), revealing a tongue-in-cheek attitude on Sturminger’s part that frequently stalls this overlong exercise with patches of tedium and sophomoric humor.
Yet there’s method in Malkovich’s epicene nuttiness (though where his kinda-sorta British accent is from is anyone’s guess). The arias are well-chosen and beautifully sung (even when Malkovich chooses to lend his own modest voice by singing along).
Malkovich builds a kind of terrifying carapace around Casanova, a man so empty he can’t restrain himself from seducing his own daughter. The play, or whatever it is, concludes with a palpable chill.
“The Giacomo Variations” is the first of two shows in a newcomer called the Cherry Orchard Festival.
Through June 2 at N.Y. City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: http://www.nycitycenter.org Rating: ***
“Spooky Action: The Drama of Quantum Mechanics” is Brian Greene’s entrancing journey through the history of the elusive and apparently hyperkinetic electron particle from 1897 to the present.
Greene has a knack for explaining complex theories in plain language. He also has a story-teller’s gift of bringing narrative tension and passion to the telling, perhaps unexpected for a theoretical physicist.
Even more unexpected is a tale that hinges on such sexier-than-science notions as “entanglement” and what Albert Einstein called “the struggle for the soul of physics.”
Aided by projections and humorous animations, an apparatus on loan from Princeton University and four actors playing Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger and other key figures, Greene explains how particles can act like waves. And that they could influence each other even across vast distances --entanglement -- with no obvious connection.
Speaking for more than 90 minutes without notes, Greene, the master bowsman of string theory, brings the story vividly to life, conveying how these discoveries continue to change the world. Not lost in the telling is the depth of the impassioned relationships among these often contentious figures.
The show is being repeated tonight and started the sixth annual World Science Festival, with events throughout the city.
Through June 2 at the New Victory Theater, 209 W. 42nd St. Information: http://www.worldsciencefestival.com. Rating: *****
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include the New York and London weekend guides and Lewis Lapham on books.