Bard stages opera about a B-movie star with a mysterious past

In 2015, Bard SummerScape presented a revisionist production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! that was quickly picked up by St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, moved to Circle in the Square this past April and announced an extension of its Broadway run into 2020 just as it was getting nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Director for Daniel Fish. This summer, Fish is back at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the Bard College campus directing a newish musical titled Acquanetta, which had its premiere in 2017 at New York’s Prototype Festival, to enthusiastic reviews.

With songs composed by Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon and a libretto by Deborah Artman, Acquanetta is the story of a B-movie star with a mysterious past. Her real name was Mildred Davenport, but the exotic beauty perhaps best-known for Tarzan and the Leopard Woman is said to have given a different version of her past in every interview. While her PR billed her as the “Venezuelan Volcano,” Acquanetta at times also claimed to be full-blooded Arapaho, while the Pennsylvania Bar Association called her brother Horace Davenport “the first African-American judge in Montgomery County.”

Gordon and Artman’s meditation on the life of this mystery woman takes off from a scene in the 1943 cult classic Captive Wild Woman, in which a mad doctor conducts a doomed experiment to create a woman by transplanting a human female’s brain and glands into a gorilla. Acquanetta reprised the role of Paula Dupree, the shapeshifting Gorilla Girl, in a sequel the following year titled Jungle Woman.

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“We decided to make the opera based on the laboratory scene and use it as a metaphor for layers of identity,” Artman explains, calling the actress’ career “a quintessential story about how women often have to conceal their truth and hide in plain sight, reinventing themselves to fit an accepted narrative. It has even more resonance now in the current climate when the role of women in power structures is being reevaluated and scrutinized.” 

In Artman’s libretto, the characters function both as actors playing roles and as the parts they are playing, revealing their inner longings as they wrestle with identity, stereotypes and typecasting. Says Gordon, “Deborah very cleverly looked into the background and the personal stories of the people in that scene. Every one of the characters in that scene has a story to tell that’s multidimensional.”

Combining theater, opera and film in a haunting meditation on identity, transformation, types and typecasting, Acquanetta stars Rebecca L. Hargrove as Acquanetta, Amelia Watkins as the Brainy Woman, Eliza Bagg as the Ape, Christopher Burchett as the Director and Timur as the Doctor, accompanied by members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Bang on a Can Opera ensemble under the baton of Grammy-nominated conductor Julian Wachner. It will have ten performances between July 11 and 21 in Bard’s LUMA Theater, the black-box space in the smaller building just to the left of the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater. Shows begin at 8 p.m. on July 11, 12, 18, 19 and 20 and at 2 p.m. on July 13, 14, 17, 20 and 21. The price of admission includes a Pre-Performance Conversation on Sunday, July 14 at 1 p.m. and a Post-Performance Conversation on Wednesday afternoon, July 17. Ticket prices range from $25 to $75. To order, visit http://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.

Acquanetta, July 11-21, $25-$75, LUMA Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; http://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.

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