Review: The In Series: Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ at the D.C. Scottish Rite Temple

If you’re a Mozart fan – and if you aren’t, you should be – you probably have your favorite ‘conspiracy theory’ about why the composer met his untimely death at the age of 35. Thanks to Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, you’ve got the theory that Antonio Salieri was the evil genius who spooked and wore the poor boy out, blocking his career at every turn.

Elizabeth Mondragon, Daren Jackson, Katherine Fili, Joe Haughton, and Cara Gonzalez. Photography by Angelisa Gillyard.

Fair enough, and yeah, it makes for great theatre and a not-too-bad movie. But for me, the sexiest conspiracy revolves around Mozart’s final classic, The Magic Flute. A fairytale opera, which was great box-office back in Mozart’s day, The Magic Flute was conceived as a crowd-pleasing vignette, larded over with imagery taken from the Freemasons, that ‘mysterious’ circle of intellectuals who get blamed to this day for everything from trilateral commissions to speed cameras. According to those who love a wicked tale, Mozart was done in by the brothers in his masonic lodge for revealing some of their (allegedly) sacrosanct secrets.

(Okay, the theory is complete nonsense, but it sure makes opera more interesting to watch, doesn’t it?)

To create this perennial crowd-pleaser, Mozart and his collaborator, the entertainer, librettist and fellow Mason Emanuel Schikaneder, lifted plot elements from popular prince-and-princess romances (which featured —wait for it – magic flutes) and made sure to include enough moments of low comedy to keep everyone in the audience happy.

Emily Casey. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

And under the deft direction of Rick Davis, the In Series has brought a wonderfully accessible, hilarious, Magic Flute to life. With a cast of energetic, young voices, you are guaranteed an evening of delightful singing, slapstick, and – with a witty, modern libretto crafted by Nick Olcott – you’ll see some of the opera’s rough edges smoothed over for contemporary audiences. Purists might take issue with some of the plot shifts Olcott has created here, but there’s no denying that this Magic Flute holds together brilliantly as a crowd-pleaser.

Davis sets the production itself in the 1930s, when struggling artists worked in companies funded by the Works Progress Administration. The no-frills production values of those days, when any props or fabrics had to do, lead to some hilarious antics, beginning at the very top of the show with a marauding ‘dragon’ that was clearly cobbled together at the last minute backstage (no spoilers here, you’ve got to see it to believe it). The heroic Tamino (Joe Haughton) — decked in Costume Designer Donna Breslin’s humorous superhero tights — is chased around stage by this ravenous, well, thingamajiggy. Heaven forbid the thing should catch up with Tamino, it would have no way of knowing how to eat him alive, or whatever.

Daren Jackson. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

Tamino is saved by three Ladies, maidens in service, who regret their vow of celibacy the minute they lay eyes on this guy. Mozart creates some lovely harmonies and interplay as the three vie for the man’s attention and the trio of Cara Gonzalez, Katherine Fili and Elizabeth Mondragon are absolutely exquisite; their harmonies had me grinning from ear to ear.

Then you have these Ladies’ boss, the Queen of the Night, whose coloratura arias are the stuff of legend. Mozart pulls off the neat trick of making you hate some of his most beautiful music, by placing it in the care of a Queen who seeks to hide the light of the world away. Kelly Curtin’s turn as the Queen is an absolute thrill; assured and spot-on, decked in an appropriately Egyptian-style headdress with floor-length deep blue evening gown, you are in the presence of a star.

The plot itself unfolds quickly enough, with Tamino sent off to save the fairytale princess Pamina (the charming Emily Casey) from the evil Sarastro (the gentle but firm of Jim Williams). Three lithe and talented Spirits – Suzanne Lane, Rebecca Henry and Arya Ballan—sing Tamino off and all do credit to Mozart’s gift for harmony.

But no hero’s quest can be complete without a sidekick, right? Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Shrek had his Donkey, and Tamino has his Papageno, an itinerant bird-catcher who’s keener to flirt with anything in a skirt than to slay dragons. Daren Jackson is a perfect fit as Papageno; his down-to-earth patter and comic timing (not to mention his sense for physical gags) guarantee a merry quest indeed.

Daren Jackson, Joe Haughton, Cara Gonzalez, Katherine Ann Fili, and Elizabeth Mondragon-Groff. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

Another neat trick is finding that these performances of The Magic Flute take place in the D.C. Scottish Rite Temple — the one up north at the intersection of 16th Street and Columbia Road NW — and I can’t think of a more appropriate venue, surrounded by the history of one of the world’s most enigmatic organizations. Mozart would be very pleased to see his brother masons welcoming this light entertainment, which puts the organization in such a bright light.

So has it been a while since you’ve seen good singing? Has it been a while since you’ve seen some good Mozart? Has it been a while since you’ve had a good laugh? Well, the answer to everything that ails you, everything you miss, can be found here at the In Series production of The Magic Flute. Treat yourself, at one of the two remaining performances. And then hassle the Board of In Series to bring it back again, and soon!

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Mozart’s The Magic Flute plays through October 1, 2017 at the D.C. Scottish Rite Temple – 2800 16th Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 204-7763 or purchase them online.

NOTE: Because the DC Scottish Rite Temple is a historic building, unfortunately there is no access for audience members in wheelchairs.


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Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White (seen here taking tea at the walls of Troy) is a longtime Washington area theatre artist, whose career began with gigs at the Source Theatre (company member under Bart Whiteman) and included shows with Theatre Le Neon (company member, under Didier Rousselet) and the Capital Fringe Festival. He received his Ph.D. in Theatre History and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park with a specialty in post-classical Greek theatre and ritual. His book, "Performing Orthodox Ritual in Byzantium" marks the first of a series with Cambridge University Press, on the strange history of the Greek performing arts between Antiquity and the Renaissance.


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