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Life or Death Situation 

CPT revives a camp classic.

After years of precarious flirting with a not-always-too-sharp cutting edge, Cleveland Public Theatre has at last found itself and reached its apotheosis with Der Kaiser von Atlantis, an exotic plant cultivated on the dungheap of the Holocaust. This haunting operatic fairy tale, forged out of blood rather than sugar plums, celebrates death as the benevolent fairy godfather of mankind. Equal parts Hans Christian Andersen and Hieronymus Bosch, set to an eerily fascinating, sometimes cacophonous score haunted by Weill and Brecht, the work implants in one's mind a lingering mental tattoo of childlike innocence playing tag with unspeakable evil.

Composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien had the tragic misfortune of creating a red-hot opera at the wrong time and place. During a rehearsal at Terezian concentration camp, an extremely unpleasant Nazi bureaucrat decided the work's eponymous emperor bore too great a resemblance to der Führer. This, of course, won its creators a one-way ticket to Auschwitz.

At Cleveland Public Theatre, their luck, at least posthumously, has finally reversed. Artistic director/producer James Levin has pulled the coup of the year by bringing together an almost preternaturally gifted trio to give life to this treacherous land mine of an opera.

Director/choreographer Jan Bruml's masterful three-ring circus direction, scene designer Oliver Sohngen's masterpiece of a set (made up of a kingdom of discarded shoes), and Betsy Burleigh's expressive musical direction have coalesced for an evening that has the wild, almost psychedelic imagery of Fantasia brought to life.

This mad allegory of fascism looks like something that could only have been co-produced by Mephistopheles himself in league with Walt Disney. A mad emperor declares himself more powerful than death. The outraged specter throws a hissy fit and goes on strike. Subsequently, soldiers mortally wounded and riddled with plague writhe in the fields as a mad harlequin makes merry. Mr. Death must be wooed back to his post. Six singers warble cacophonous ditties with heavenly enthusiasm. Here, performance art, opera, and theater erupt like Mount Vesuvius.

This is not for those timid souls who dare not venture beyond Verdi and Puccini. -- Joseph

Keith A. Joseph can be reached at

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