On Sunday night I attended a production of Keto and Kote at the Batumi Art House. Myself and around a hundred other TLG volunteers were able to see the show courtesy of Misha and the MES, to whom I extend great thanks. I wrote a summary of the TLG trip to Batumi on the TLG Official Blog.
I may or may not have mentioned that I studied theatre in college (before changing my major to Political Science) and worked in the theatre industry in New York for almost five years. The production that I saw on Sunday would stand up well with the best of what I saw during that time. I loved every minute of the show. It pulled me in from the very beginning and held my attention until the end. I honestly think this show could have a sold out run in New York City.
What follows is a very, very long and detailed analysis of exactly why.
Batumi Art House is a gorgeous, modern building built on the Black Sea Coast. From the front plaza you can see the Batumi Coast, with its giant ferris wheel and bizarre alphabet tower. You can walk up to the fourth floor – a floor made of glass – and stand outside above the entranceway and stare out into the sea or down at the gathered press. The theatre itself looks to hold about 800 people, with thirty rows of extremely comfortable seats on the main floor and a row of balconies above and around the theatre. The stage is a classic proscenium arch, with an orchestra pit set below. The interior contains ornate decorations in tan and gold, with red carpets and seats and dark hardwood floors. The tech area was visible behind the audience – no glass separated them – and you could see sound and lighting controls. Above the stage was a small screen with English text projected onto it. Several kinds of lights were in evidence as well as a large speaker system.
The show began with a pair of masks projected onto the curtain. These masks were somehow almost holographic in appearance and rotated back and forth to face each other and the audience. I was taken immediately to the Greek theatre although these were not specifically greek-style masks – they were somewhat more naturalistic, perhaps made from plaster casts of a placid face.
As the curtain rose, I noticed the presence of a raked stage. This was somewhat shocking to me as New York professional theatre generally does not use raked stages, for reasons related to actors’ safety and actors’ union regulations; I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a live performance on a rake or even heard about one being done.
The opening continued the general effect of relating to classical Greek theatre. Perhaps the most notable was the presence of a group of performers wearing plain, loose-fitting grey outfits with masks on their chests. These characters were clearly the chorus, and throughout the play they would take on various roles as, essentially, extras. They functioned much like the Greek chorus would have in the Old Comedy era, and indeed the entire plot of the play seemed to fit the model most closely associated with Aristophanes.
The voice of the chorus was a narrator who sort of bridged the fourth wall, interacting with the audience at times and the characters on stage at other times. The narrator wore a suit with two extra arms coming out of his torso and one coming out of the back of his neck. The significance of this escapes me, but it sure looked cool.
The story also bears some structural resemblance to an Old Comedy. There is a rich prince named Levan who likes to throw parties and generously entertain his guests. One day, at his party, his sister’s dancing hospitality is marred by the arrival of a messenger telling her that if her family did not pay their debts in three days, their estates would be seized and sold at auction.
Levan wisely decides that the only way to afford his rock-and-roll lifestyle is to marry rich, so he enlists the help of a pair of rival matchmakers who, in a scene reminiscent of Taming of the Shrew (“What? Have I choked you with an argosy?), compete to describe the riches they can offer to Levan. This was one of my favorite scenes, as the matchmaker Kabato gave a fabulous performance.
Unfortunately for poor Levan, the woman he chooses is Keto, who has met Kote in a garden and fallen in love. When Keto’s father summons her to town, she tells her servants to thwart the older generation’s plans for marriage and arrange for her to elope to the little church downtown with Kote. The servants decide to obey her out of fear that she will scratch their faces.
Then, without a single misstep, the servants successfully execute a plan to individually eliminate each barrier to Keto and Kote’s marriage through a series of hilarious ruses. Keto and Kote get married, the adults shout “vaime!” and lament their own incompetence, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Now, what many people will notice about this story is that it is extremely simple and there is not a lot of suspense. The conflict is resolved very early on and the story is mostly out of the way and ancillary to the entertainment value of the show, which is in its spectacle. This is not uncommon for comedies, especially classical comedies, and in a production with so many deliberate nods to Greek theatre, it comes off as intentional.
What I noticed about the story is that it seemed extremely topical to current society in Georgia. The story contains a very clear generation gap, between the old guard – traditionalists who arrange marriages and expect obedience from their children – and the new generation, who basically just push the old guard out of the way to get what they want. There’s a clear impression of the old guard squandering their wealth on lavish parties, gambling, and other recreation without regard for the effect these things will have on the younger generation. I think that the prevalence of young people in charge of reforms and management at all levels of Georgian society is neatly encapsulated by the story of Keto and Kote.
There’s also a certain gendered aspect to this story. I won’t read it as feminist, but certainly Kote’s only role in the story is a sort of passive admirer of Keto. Keto (and her subservient male servants) takes all the risks of disobeying her elders and does all the work of arranging the downfall of her betrothal. Keto stands out as a consummately modern, independent woman who makes her own decisions and defies the venal, incompetent traditionalists plaguing her life.
One of the most immediately and constantly apparent facts about Georgia to the Westerners that come here is that Georgia functions as well as it does only because the old guard has been shoved out of the way and a cadre of competent women have stepped up to do the work. The composition of TLG itself – currently I believe it’s two men working with seventeen or so women, nearly all of them in their twenties or early thirties – illustrates this nicely. Keto and Kote captures that demographic to a T.
I’ve said already that the show made several deliberate nods to classical Greek theatre, perhaps most vividly to the Old Comedy of Aristophanes. The show, however, was also a modernization of the Keto and Kote opera, which was written nearly a hundred years ago and based on an even older story.
The modernization comes in two ways. One was the elements of the stage production itself – the lighting, music, costumes, scenery, and even choreography made use of distinctly modern techniques including some rather significant uses of projectors. The other, which I’ll discuss first, was in the character of Keto.
Keto is not only modern in that she is independent and strong-willed. Keto is also modern in that she rides around in a Louis Vuitton helicopter, comes on stage accompanied by a Madonna song, and code-switches between English and Georgian throughout her scenes.
I’ll let that sink in and describe the individual elements of the spectacle that accompanied this story.
Scenery and Lighting
As I’ve said, there was a raked stage. This stage was actually on a platform set slightly above the main stage, so there was also a flat surface and the actors could move between spaces. The raked area had trapdoors that could open for added showmanship. The raked area was also mirrored.
There was one other set piece – a huge mirror hanging from the ceiling. This mirror was divided into three adjustable pieces, each of which could move up and down and change angles. It creaked a little when it moved, which was scary. The mirrors gave the show a fantastical, surreal sort of element, and sometimes made me feel like I was looking into a prism. They also added a lot of depth and motion to many of the scenes.
The most important thing about the mirrors, I think, was the creativity with which they were used. They could be used to increase or decrease the perceived amount of space on stage, to show an extra angle to the audience, or to combine with the lighting to produce really interesting visual effects.
The lighting, I thought, was fantastic. They used mostly deep, primary and secondary colors – a lot of deep reds and greens and yellows, in particular, with the occasional white or blue. Lighting was rarely naturalistic, but instead used to give the scenes an added depth of emotion and sense of heightened reality.
The costumes were straight from the Lady Gaga collection. The matchmakers both looked like witches from animated Disney movies. Tekla, Levan’s sister, was a sexy ballerina who made a point to show off her bright red underwear. Keto switched it up a lot, changing from pink hot-pants to a white wedding dress depending on the scene. The chorus continued to wear their plain stage greys.
I thought that the outlandish costumes were a potent part of the modernized aspect of the show, but were also somewhat reminiscent of the ridiculous costumes worn in operas throughout opera history. There was definitely a little Commedia dell’arte and a little Gilbert and Sullivan in there. Some modernizations work by having characters wear modern clothes, but in this case I think it worked by tying together the absurdity of costumes worn through the ages, from ancient Greece through Europe and straight to modern America.
Dancing, Singing, and Music
The dancing ranged from traditional Georgian folk dance – although with a more modern feel, and much more in time with the music – to European-style ballet, without all the boring ponderous crap that usually weighs down European ballet. I have a great love of Georgian national dance and a deep abiding hatred of European ballet, so this show worked out well for me.
The singing was great. The thing I realized at the end of the opera was that there was not a single soprano in the whole piece. I never realized how annoying I find sopranos in opera until after I saw this show. I think that without sopranos, and the characters that sopranos are always assigned to play, I would enjoy opera enough to actually watch opera on a semi-regular basis.
I especially liked Kabato – as I already mentioned, her performance when describing her candidate for marriage to Levan was one of my favorite scenes. Her pronunciation really established her character, especially her emphasis on guttural consonants. In another scene, she acted out getting drunk and sang songs in various foreign styles, including a hilarious Georgian impression of what Mexican music sounds like.
The orchestra was fantastic. The music was excellent and well-played. Again, it came off as a mix of European and Georgian styles, and it was always enough to keep me interested. Most of it was uptempo, and even the one really slow song – Keto and Kote’s meeting – was performed in an energetic and lively way.
Really, I liked everything about the play. I liked the music, the singing, the dancing, the staging, the lighting, the story, and especially the costumes. It was visually stunning. The pacing was spot-on. The show was kept short enough to need no breaks. The show held the attention of a Georgian audience, which is no small feat.
The show made use of theatrical conventions ranging over a period of thousands of years. It was obvious that a massive amount of thought and education went into every aspect of the production of this opera. To be able to rearrange a series of conventions and come up with something so unique and original requires great helpings of skill and talent.
This production was relevant, timely, updated, and spectacular. If you get a chance to go see it, do so.