Elizabeth Swados has always gone her own way, and her new music-theater piece, “Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera,” is stamped with some of her familiar idiosyncrasies: the childlike perspective; the atonal operatics; the surreal dramatic landscape; the thematic obsession with abused and abandoned children. It’s a sensibility that fits right in at the Flea Theater, which maintains a resident ensemble of nimble young actor-singers, the Bats, happy to show off in anything remotely experimental — like the composer-scribe-director’s reworking of the Wild Child legend.
From French poet Paul Verlaine to Austrian novelist-playwright Peter Handke to German filmmaker Werner Herzog, artists have always been drawn to the legend of Kaspar Hauser, a homeless child found wandering the streets of Nuremberg, Germany, in the 19th century. With nothing to validate his claims but a piece of paper with his name on it, the boy told a shocking tale of being held captive in a small dark room for his entire lifetime.
Kaspar’s Dickensian version of his wretched life was eventually discredited. But during his surprisingly lengthy run as a celebrated public figure, the boy was studied by physicians, feted by royalty and enthusiastically embraced (and just as quickly denounced) by a gullible populace. Somewhere along the way, a new article of faith accrued to his apocryphal legend; namely, that he was a child of royal blood, spirited away at birth by members of a rival family branch.
Swados retains basic elements of the original story in her sung-through operetta. Kaspar (waif-like Preston Martin) is still sequestered in an airless cell, with nothing but a wooden horse to comfort him. His mother (Eliza Poehlman) still mourns his loss, in a succession of dissonant songs that convey much grief, but little variety. And the family’s implacable enemies, Lady Fromme (Carly Zien) and Lord Stanhope (Marshall York), still carry out their wicked designs on the boy.
But while Swados has fashioned numerous Hogarthian crowd scenes in which the Bats earn their keep as curious doctors, soft-hearted citizens and rabid sensation seekers — all fancifully costumed in (18th, rather than 19th century) period splendor by Normandy Sherwood — she is primarily fixated on Kaspar as the embodiment of the mistreated child.
Scribe has been working this theme since “Runaways,” and it obviously touches a deep chord with her. Martin’s wraithlike Kaspar — so innocent, so trusting, so cruelly treated — suffers like some silent-movie virgin at the whimsical moods of his public. And while there’s no question about the authenticity of his ordeal here, it’s also obvious that Swados has conflated the image of the abused child with the iconic figure of the unappreciated artist.
Despite the very Germanic, very Grimm-like performance style she favors, Swados’ fairy-tale sensibility has its childlike appeal — especially to a company of young thesps who have not yet lost the enchantment of dressing up and telling scary stories.