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Turandot: The Rumble for the Ring

Originally Posted: July 10, 2007

Barry Gordin
Patrick Christiano

Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner, the creators of a new rock opera, "Turandot: The Rumble for the Ring", which will be making its World Premiere at Bay Street from July 10 - August 5, are a dynamic duo that just happen to be married to each other. I met with them a couple of weeks ago at a rehearsal studio on the 5th floor of Playwright's Horizons on West 42nd Street in New York City, where Diane was hard at work putting the cast through their paces in preparation for this week's opening.

Their hip new musical is based on a classic fairytale "Turnadot," not the Puccini opera, although, their account bears many similarities. Their Turandot, however, is set in the violent World of Professional Wrestling, but the press release declares the show is "jam-packed with some of the greatest arias from other operas...only this time they are set to a rock beat." After watching a portion of a rehearsal and chatting with the stimulating couple, I am convinced this clever theatrical event may be one of the most unique happenings on the East End this summer.

Diane is a director of theater and opera. Randy is a writer, director, and producer. Together, they eat, work, sleep, and breathe theater. Randy has come up with what he considers a hybrid form of theater, which he calls "Club Theatre," and New York Magazine refers to him as "the master of the club spectacle." They are responsible for the widely acclaimed musical "The Donkey Show", a disco version of Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream", set in an atmosphere reminiscent of the infamous nightclub Studio 54. He was that show's creator and she was the director. Their witty musical, full of fresh ideas, ran for six years Off-Broadway, and toured internationally to London, Edinburgh, Madrid, and Evian, France.

When I dropped into a rehearsal near the end of the morning session, I was quickly ushered into a studio, where what feels like an enormous boxing ring dominated the space and somewhere between fifteen and twenty people were scattered about. There was a rehearsal pianist seated at an upright piano going over a song with a female vocalist, but at second thought I realize this may have been Roger Butterley, who is credited with music direction, arrangements, and orchestrations.

An intensely concentrated Diane was working on a scene with several of the actors/singers; a segment that appeared to be filled with much pomp and ceremony, where the hero ultimately challenges Turandot to unmask him. You can see Diane's wheels turning, as she scans the ring taking in all the action and every actor with a passionate focus that seems to consider every detail. The lady obviously knows what she wants, but isn't seeing it all yet as she declares the parade, "Still a little wonky." They will work on this more after lunch.

Diane was the star and Randy insisted he was an expendable "dork," when the two met in 1983 while working on a production of "Wonderful Town". Twenty four years later they are married, successful innovators of theater and the proud parents of two children; the older is three, and the younger is just 4 months, but front and center at the moment is Turandot.

On their lunch break, the energetic couple took time from their hectic schedule to converse with me about their fascinating ideas for Turandot, time I imagined they might have spent creatively fine tuning some part of this challenging project. There is a marvelous yin and yang between them as they elaborate on the evolution of the show and what they are attempting; I marvel at the captivating enthusiasm they have for their new work and the rich flow of ideas that stream back and forth between them as they detail their vision. I get the feeling they never stop thinking about theater. One night, recently, Randy actually woke up from a dream with the solution to a dilemma they had been struggling with for several days; such is the nature of their dedication.

With "Turandot: The Rumble for the Ring", they have taken a similar concept that worked so well for "The Donkey Show". They put the action in an unusual venue, and then turned what is essentially a classic story into a rock musical. Now with Turandot the world of Professional Wrestling and Rock 'n Roll are merged for the unfolding story of learning how to open up to love, a tale that still resonates in our pop culture today. The hero, a stranger called El Mysterio Jr., will struggle to discover the true meaning of love and as part of his challenge must undergo test after test enduring incredible feats, even fighting the executioner and risking death to win Turandot's love. The characters are strong archetypes with overblown emotions, where the good guys and the villains are ever so obvious.

Randy had been somewhat awestruck by the theatricality of the professional wrestling world around 1990 and found it to be unbelievable fun, unlike anything else, a sporting event where audience involvement was a part of the environment, much like the history of opera, where the patrons "booed" if they were displeased by the performance.

There is a form of wresting called Lucha Libre and the mysterious masked wrestles are called Luchadores. Their matches played out in front of an audience screaming for blood are actually well crafted often brutal forms of theater in which the participants wear elaborate often sexy costumes. The time is 2007 and this is the outrageous milieu in which the audience will find themselves as they experience The Rumble for the Ring.

In their re-imagining of the Turandot legend, the Emperor and owner of PROWL (Professional Rock Opera Wrestling League) has decided to stage the greatest promotion in wrestling history, The Rumble For The Ring. He will offer his daughter, Turandot's hand in marriage, to anyone who can defeat the most terrifying duo in wrestling, the Infernal Machine. When a stranger called El Mysterio, Jr. steps forward to take on the challenge we get some bizarre twists on an ancient parable.

All of the music is derived from operas popular before 1924 that are now part of the public domain. They include some of operas' greatest arias by Puccini, Verdi, Bizet and many more. The original tunes have been used, so the listener will be getting a subliminal message of something they may recognize, but may not know why, because the lyrics have been changed and the melodies have been rocked out.

Diane and Randy are proud of their actor/singers, who not only posses outstanding musical flexibility, but are in top physical condition, as well, from rehearsing the rigorous show. When they auditioned, all the men had to sing karaoke to the Jon Bon Jovi hit "Living on a Prayer," and the women had to sing the Pat Benatar song "Hit Me with Your Best Shot." If they passed that test, there was a wrestling audition which weeded out the weak links.

Aided by Bay Street's encouraging support the dynamic duo have put together an extraordinary team that, besides Mr. Butterley and the cast, includes Rick Sordelet, a fight director with 38 Broadway shows to his credit. He is responsible for giving the wrestling an authentic feel, and Mr. Butterley, of course, was the music director for "The Who's Tommy" at Bay Street last season starring Euan Morton. Sets are by Scott Pask, who just this season took home a Tony Award for his scenic design on Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" at Lincoln Center.

The evening promises to be an exciting adventure unlike anything ever presented at Bay Street. The creators hope, if nothing else, they may have planted the seeds for some transformational soul searching in a most unlikely atmosphere.

Performances run from July 10th until August 5th. Tickets can be purchased at the box office by calling 631-725-9500 or log on to www.baystreet.org.

Photos by David Rogers

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