Making fools for fun in 'The Golden Ass'
It doesn't get any more primal than telling stories around a campfire. After all, back in the figurative or literal cave, around life-preserving flames, our ancestors first began to spin tales. So it's a comfort that Nimbus's latest production, an adaptation of Apuleius' The Golden Ass, begins with travelers ending their long day by eating what provisions they have and then swapping yarns.
In her notes, director Liz Neerland states that the Apeleius' tales have "no moral. The stories... aren't allegorical; they aren't trying to teach us a lesson. They are just there to entertain us." That aspect comes through loud and clear, from poor Lucius's long plight as a transformed beast of burden, to the various folks and adventures he encounters along the way, to the occasional story-within-the-story that breaks out during the narrative. The Golden Ass is meant to be fun, and though there may be a few soft edges, it does that well from beginning to end.
So, as noted above, Lucius is an ordinary man who, after fooling with a witch's spell, gets transformed into the title ass. The solution to his plight seems simple: Find a rose and eat it. Yet his plans get interrupted at every turn as he is passed from owner to owner, each with an interesting -- funny, tragic, or funny and tragic -- story to tell.
The stories are messy, often overlapping in the way that life does. The finales often happen off stage, as we learn that Lucius's latest owner has been violently killed or imprisoned. (Apparently, there's a bit of bad luck that comes with owning this particular ass.)
All this storytelling becomes intoxicating, and the game cast -- led by Joel Raney as Lucius the storyteller and Lucius the donkey -- has a lot of fun with the material, which mostly works with the audience. The Psyche and Cupid story is likely the highlight, with angry gods, conniving sisters, and marital distrust playing roles in the protracted journey to happiness for the mortal and immortal couple. Oh, and there's a puppet eagle as well. What's not to like?
It all centers on Raney's character's plight, and he brings that off very well, from the innocent mistake that leads to his condition to the eventual freedom he earns after all of his toil (as if that's a spoiler, considering the perfectly human man is telling the stories). He's also strong in the various other roles he takes on, such as one of Psyche's evil sisters.
At times, the whole company doesn't seem to be as committed to the piece as they should be, leading to some hesitant performances that make for odd beats in the show. Also, the campfire banter -- which could be wholly improvised for all I know -- sounds forced and unnatural. These moments pass pretty quickly, and the company is back into the latest adventure of clueless thieves and not-so-noble eunuchs.