This year’s Shotgun Players free summer show, Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller’s Ragnarok: The Doom of the Gods, is an epic undertaking, loaded with masks, puppets, and double-crosses as the ancient Norse gods struggle against their fate. The first act is terrific. The second, soporific.
The ancient framing device involves three actors performing for a wealthy patron. This play-within-a-play begins with the gods up to their usual merry pursuits in Asgard, singing, scheming, and eating apples that keep them young. But Odin’s beloved son Baldur has been having nightmares about Ragnarok — an apocalyptic battle between the gods and everyone else. So Odin sends Thor and Loki as emissaries to the Primals, hoping to get some intel. That does not go well for our heroes, who are easily trumped by their much-smarter hosts, and they must return to Asgard to begin evasive maneuvers. In the second act, Loki reveals his real agenda — trying to get revenge for mistreatment by the other gods — and then there’s lots of singing and running around, culminating in a moment of hope.
The Shotgunners use Ryan O’Malley as the actor Snorri, with Erin Carter as his wife, the actress Helga. Both really let out the throttle. Carter is a bigger presence than she has been in other work: There was no way to know from her turn in Impact’s Nicky Goes Goth that she could hold a large space, but she’s wonderful here. The script has Helga going on a bit heavy-handedly about her unborn baby, but Carter carries it. The husband/wife interaction between the two is lovely. And O’Malley is fantastic, especially as one of Snorri’s many characters, Thrym, King of the Frost Giants. “You’ve come from the gods in Ass-guard?” he taunts Loki when the trickster god comes to retrieve Thor’s stolen hammer. Thrym wants Freya, the goddess of love, so he can make “lots of little Thryms, faster than [Thor] can smash ’em!”, and the scene where Loki obligingly brings the new bride to Thrym is brilliant.
The other strong segment is Loki and Thor’s trip to see the Primals. Draped in Christine Crook’s seaweedy costumes, speaking and moving in tandem, the Primals blend funny and creepy. “You want Happy Meals? Play games like nippers?” they ask the exhausted gods. Thor (a brusque Nikolai Lokteff) does a truly impressive backbend in a drinking contest against one of the Primals, and Loki gets outmaneuvered. Thor and Loki tangling with the Primals is a lot of fun, and points up the production’s strength. When the gods are being clever, things move. When they’re worried, things grind to a halt.
According to legend, the gods knew exactly what was going to happen to them at Ragnarok, down to which god would fight which giant. Why then does Odin keep saying that he can’t see what’s coming? He sacrificed an eye for wisdom and crucified himself on Yggdrasil the world-tree so he could read the runes, but he’s pretty ineffective for all that. Roham Shaikhani is stiff as the breast-feeding-obsessed Odin; he’s not nearly as varied as wife Frigge, the goddess of marriage (Fuller), who constantly snipes at him about his womanizing. And it’s ironic that the gods are constantly deriding the Primals as evil when it’s the gods who are the ones making bad deals and bopping them on the heads.
There’s good stuff in the text, like Thor insisting, “I can’t build; I can kill. Let’s kill!” Bishop and Fuller give more of a rationale for Loki’s turn to the dark side than other writers have, making him a more interesting character (and Ben Dziuba is not only a fabulously physical Loki, but the actor who seems most at ease with his mask). They take several opportunities to tie in modern politics and events — maybe a little more than is strictly necessary to get the point across, but this is a Shotgun show. The overall story arc is engrossing, the choice of what to include and what to leave out judicious.
But then there’s the singing. The songs blur into one long dirge, losing the story’s momentum. My heart sank every time Odin called for Braggi to cue the music, as well executed as the accompaniment is. The actual death of the gods, which takes place during a song, is confusing and dull. And some of the technical choices probably could have used more time to come together. The choice to mask the actors was gutsy — there are whole curricula devoted to mask work, it’s that difficult — but here it just makes expressions hard to see. Making the goddess Hel, ruler of the underworld, a puppet operated by three people is pretty cool, but having her voiced by the same three doesn’t jell.
A friend claims to know someone who got away with writing a whole review of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, another take on the Norse mythos, in six words: “Dwarves steal gold; gods get mad.” No small feat for an opera that takes fifteen hours to perform. Shotgun’s Ragnarok requires just one afternoon in the park, not four nights in a stuffy opera house. But it could still stand boiling down.