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Jerry Springer: the Opera

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An early scene from The Chance production

By Michael Buss, 2011-07-22
So whatís the deal with Jerry Springer: the Opera now playing at The Chance Theatre, in Anaheim Hills? The advertisements warn us not to go if we are easily offended. And over 6,000 protest emails have hit the Chance Inbox! This website got about six because we carried advertising for the show.

And all this is to miss the point, really. Comedy lies in unexpected incongruity. And what could be more incongruous that setting the Jerry Springer show to operatic music and with opera quality singers? So that has to be funny! Right? The show opens with the entire cast parading on to the stage (a Jerry Springer set) singing like a chorus from Aida. Itís spellbinding until you realize the words are also liberally laced with the showís typical profanities Ė not bleeped out Ė and once again we are into incongruity. And you crack up!

The BBC caused a furore when it screened Jerry Springer The Opera Photo: BBC

Of course the JS Show is probably the ultimate in self-exhibitionist tackiness. Banality beggars belief. Yet equally so it is the vast, moderate middle of America watching the show year after year that keeps it on the television! No, WE would never go on the show to bare all, so to speak, but WE (all right, maybe not YOU) still watch it and make it worthwhile for the commercial advertisers. So itís fair game for spoofery.

Starting at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, JS the Opera made itís way to Londonís West End. And there controversy was seldom heard, because itís sublime vulgarity, its sacred profanity, was all contained within the four walls of the theatre. Critics and audiences alike raved about it. Most laughed; a few left. The rest of the population of the UK were none the wiser, until the BBC aired it. The cat was, so to speak, out of the bag.

Then it was the people were roused with indignation; the Roman Catholic church was under assault, God was offended, Jesus was blasphemed and the ears of small children must be stuffed with cotton wool lest this scurrilous entertainment defile their innocent minds. This was interesting. Now we know there is a great deal of self-righteousness out there to be a guiding light of the rest of us less upright people.

Nothing else for it: go see the show for myself. Which I did. And the curious thing is that inside the theatre the message that comes through is -- When will we stop behaving like such idiots, begin to take responsibility for our lives, stop blaming others and love each other better? Really.

If you have not yet been to see the show let me give you some exegetical tools to handle what you will see. Being, originally a theologian and philosopher, I like these sort of discussions. We are going to touch on the nature of myth, metaphor and demythologization (to borrow a term coined by German scholar Rudolf Bultmann.)

Mind you, you need none of that in Act I. For that we have a very funny operatic take-off of a typical JS Show. A few parts are gross. Yes, there is loads of profanity; but as they say, if you are likely to be offended, donít come.

Then there is an event. Maybe An Event. Let me not spoil it by telling you. And so the second half of the show is relocated to purgatory, and thence, hell.

It is not intended as a send-up of the Pope (who gets only one passing mention), or any particular churchís theology. But it does bring on the characters of Adam and Eve, God (yes, he wears white shirt and sings with a rich baritone voice), the Devil and, lest we miss any of the major characters, Jesus and his mother.

Bobby Smith (Jonathan/The Devil) in Jerry Springer: The Opera, Studio Theater, 2008 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Warning. If you cannot bear to see any of these characters treated with other than high biblical regard, you might feel the show touched on blasphemy. So this is exactly where the exegesis comes in. Adam and Eve, the Devil and Jesus, are the great archetypal forces with which we are all familiar, the combatants wrestling with the forces of good and evil. The whole moral dilemma of the human race is played out by the characters of this biblical story. It has always been totally epic.

Bultmann was not very popular with Bible believers because he taught that much of what we read in the Bible is in fact myth; stories designed to bring out a deeper meaning. It did not matter whether they were factually, or historically true. But the spiritual and moral truth did matter. The bible scholarís task was therefore to strip away the overlaying crust of myth (which I know many people regard as reality) and try to get back to what actually happened: the Jesus of history, behind the Christ of faith.

So you might not like that approach to your Bible. But please understand that these great figures leap out of both popular culture and ancient religion as the major players in the war between good and evil. They are seen by many as metaphors, as vehicles to put into human terms concepts which otherwise might be too abstract.

In this light you can now make sense of the second half of JS the Opera. It is far deeper than one might realize. Sure, you can romp along with the show and take it at face value, but there is ample exposition within the text of the play to demonstrate that it embodies a raft of serious comment about human behavior, where itís gone wrong, and how it might be put right. Act II confronts Jerry with the fact that he exploited and wounded the very people he paraded on his show for our entertainment. Yet he rebuts that claim and says itís not his fault. Well whose fault is it? Yes Ė a big moral dilemma is played out in Act II and it succeeds brilliantly. Get behind the theatrical metaphor of the use of major heroic religious figures and it all begins to make sense.

Except for one place in the show. God and the Devil kiss. Now that had me scratching my head. What meaning might lie under the metaphor of that piece of theatre? I couldnít figure it out. Some eschatological whimsy? A theological parallel of the meeting of matter and anti-matter? What was the playwright driving at? So I asked a member of the Chance team. Oh, he said, Thatís not in the original play; we added it in. So let me tell you, I suggest you take it out. It is a distraction without purpose. It breaks the careful crafting of the play and exhibits a lack of understanding of the material.

As to the actors, the direction, the staging, the drama, the pathos, the comedy Ė the whole theatrical production: Quite stunning. Brilliantly conceived and executed. Another Chance triumph.

DISCLAIMER: The views represented in this article are those of the reviewer alone, not the Anaheim Arts Council.



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