Father Days

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Father Days

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

For most dads, Father's Day only comes once a year; but for the Norse god Wotan--the &quotsupreme;" or &quotfather;" god in Germanic myths--it comes every day of the week. The fourth day of each week is dedicated to him as "Wotan's day" or, in English, Wednesday.

This doesn't mean that fatherhood is any easier for Wotan than it is for other dads--just ask the Wotan of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Wagner called his 15+-hour cycle &quotmusic-drama;," but as seen in Long Beach this past weekend, The Ring plays out like situation comedy.

Long Beach Opera is presenting a reduced version of The Ring (performed in English) which focuses on Wotan and the familial struggle that is at the heart of the narrative.

Because of this, the mighty Wotan can be seen to resemble a sit-com dad like Ralph Kramden or Ed Bundy. He's constantly bickering with his wife about renovations to the family home or dealing with children who are disobeying him.

There's no laugh track provided in the theater down in Long Beach, but many chuckles could be heard at the performance due to the absurdity of this grand opera being performed in such a modest fashion.

In some ways, this Ring resembles Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme which was seen here two seasons ago. Luhrmann updated Puccini's famous opera to the 1950's, whereas here, director Jonathan Eaton sets Wagner's opus in the 1960's--or at least what looks like the sixties. The Valkyries are dressed like biker-chicks and most of the other gods stroll about the stage is if they're at a commune in Sedona. The mid-20th century modern set design also furthers the notion that this is indeed a swinging Ring.

Both Luhrmann and Eaton seem motivated by the same impulse to update these stories: they're trying to make grand opera accessible. Like Baz's Boheme, this Ring will no doubt offend some purists as well as win over some new fans; but ultimately its many faults can be somewhat overlooked due to the sincerity of the cast and production team.

Sincerity and the notion of fatherhood are also two elements that loom large in another unlikely show making its L.A. debut: Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays. The show is largely about Crystal's family, namely his father who died when the comedian was only 15. 700 Sundays--a great title--is Crystal's approximation of how many Sundays the two spent together.

The first part of the show is about Crystal's idyllic life growing up in Brooklyn during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years; the last part is the celebrity's struggle dealing with the death of his mother and other relatives in the wake of 9/11.

In between are a few inspired bits revolving around real Super-8 movies of Crystal's family--and of course lots of the comic's standup material (some of which is lifted directly from his old routines).

The show will likely make you laugh, as Crystal remains a consummate entertainer, and depending on your predilection for mushy nostalgia, it may even make you cry.

What 700 Sundays doesn't do is elevate the one-man show to the level of art. Crystal's tribute to his parents is sincere, but the way he dramatizes his feelings--for example, schticky conversations with God--are neither profound or innovative.

It may be unfair to compare 700 Sundays to Joan Didion's recent memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, but they are uniquely linked, as both are surprisingly honest works about famous people dealing with grief. The one moment that is genuinely touching in 700 Sundays is when Crystal can't describe his emotions when his dying mother recognizes him as a celebrity, but not as her own son.

Scenes like this show Crystal striving to do what Didion achieved with her book; but ultimately, 700 Sundays is too schitcky to be profound, and too long and serious to be mere entertainment for a Sunday, Wednesday, or any other day of the week.

Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays runs through February 18 at the Wilshire Theatre. Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung runs this weekend at the Center Theatre in Long Beach.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.