The Italian word “mascherarsi” means “to mask.” “Mascherarsi” is also the title of an original New Orleans dinner theater rock opera, coming Saturday, Feb. 1.
The production, performed by the Reese Johanson Collective, borrows from “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the French play about a shy lover who convinces a more eloquent underling to sweet-talk the object of his affection into falling in love.
This version follows a spoiled Italian countess who attempts to woo a gondolier by forcing her maid to sing to him, pretending her beautiful voice is that of the countess.
A mermaid later enchants the gondolier with a sleep spell that causes him to fall in love with the first person he sees upon waking — in this case the countess, played by Johanson, who also directs the performance with Alex Wallace.
“Mascherarsi” features opera singing by Mattea Musso and also Bremner Duthie, who plays the gondolier. It also features wild guitar, drums and other rock-n-roll instrumentation by local psychedelic punk artist One Man Machine (Bernard Pearce), as well as Euclid Records store owner Brian Bromberg of the group Earl Long, among other local musicians.
The songs are in some cases original compositions, while others are souped-up versions of Italian opera classics by Mozart, Cassini and Monteverdi.
The production also features local theater star Todd d’Amour, who most recently performed in the Reese Johanson Collective’s version of “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Art Klub, and “Venus In Fur” at the Southern Reparatory Theatre. D’Amour may be best known for performing nude in the five-hour long play, “The Lily’s Revenge” at the Den of Muses in 2013.
In “Mascherarsi,” d’Amour’s character is what’s known in Italian theatre as the commediani. “I don’t want to say the commediani is the buffoon or jester,” said d’Amour, who taught Italian comedy at a trade school in Orvieto, Italy. “But he’s the physical or comedic element, the kind of thing you’d find in Italian commedia del arte, which is a traveling troupe of stock characters — sort of like an Italian ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Buster Keaton also got a lot of his style from Italian commedia de arte.
“My character is this comically sexual sort of gypsy king who eventually rides off while making out with the girl,” d’Amour said. “But he is first introduced in a comedic way: when these two girls can’t push this heavy cart, he pushes them out of the way to do it himself — but then he can’t push the cart either, and one of the girls ends up pushing it.”
The Reese Johanson Collective evolved out of the non-profit arts company Artist Inc., an organization that meets and rehearses in the Art Klub space on Elysian Fields in Marigny.
The space belongs to Johanson’s partner, famed painter James Michalopoulos, whose Old New Orleans Rum also sponsors some of the collective’s productions.
“Mascherarsi,” (also sponsored by New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic & Assistance Foundation) is the troupe’s third production, on the heels of its 2013 Fringe Fest success, “En Route” and the dark, children’s dance production, “Les Gitans.”
“Mascherarsi” was originally commissioned and performed in March for a visiting convention that had a Venetian ball theme. The current incarnation will be performed one night only at the Eiffel Society on St. Charles Avenue.
“The Eiffel Society came to me wanting to do a dinner theater,” said Johanson. “They have a wonderful kitchen and a great chef. So the play will feature an Italian prix fixe meal.”
The night’s “rustic Italian dinner” will consist of a first course of arincini with sweet red pepper coulis and basil oil, a main course of chicken roulade with sage pesto and pancetta with shallot or potato roulade with spinach and leeks topped with wild mushroom ragu served with savory root vegetable mille feuille, and a dessert of banana panna cotta with dark chocolate hazelnut cream and salted graham cracker.
Johanson stressed that the show is mostly about food and fun. “People shouldn’t be intimidated by the opera part,” she said, promising that the music has as much in common with the Clash as with Mozart.
“ ‘Mascherarsi’ is essentially light, fun entertainment with classic touches.”