Sometimes we learn things that we never expected to when we walk into the theatre. Hopefully. This time I learned something about a well-known English Baroque opera named Dido and Aeneas, written by composer Henry Purcell with a libretto by Nahum Tate, names that I have never heard of nor heard mentioned before. So sue me. I’m not that up to speed on English Baroque Opera, nor any type of Baroque anything, especially opera. The opera was written in the late 1600’s based on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, which recounts the love of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero, Aeneas. The opera follows here until the bitter end as she succumbs to her despair when he abandons her with his crew on a voyage to a far away land. At the end of this tale, as the opera and Dido’s life are both coming to a conclusion, the Queen sings one of the great arias of all time, Dido’s Lament. And this beautiful and sad piece of music is what greets our collective ear as Ensemble Studio Theatre/Youngblood‘s Dido of Idaho, a new play by Abby Rosebrock begins its own journey. I didn’t, of course, make the connection, but with the slyness of a deceitful crocodile, the parallel story sails off on its own voyage to recreate a new Troy, but this time, on Idaho soil.
Where as Queen Dido’s demise is launched by the Trojan fleet sailing away from Carthage, Nora’s fate is toasted into existence with some wine being shared with her married lover, Michael, played with dorkish charm by Curran Connor (Labyrinth’s The Way West). Nora, portrayed with a wild and free-wheeling connectivity by the compelling Layla Khosh (LCT’s Bull in a China Shop), is a hard-drinking musicologist who, as seen through her daily emails to her estranged and evangelical mother, played with stoic solidness by Dalia Davi (La MaMa’s Power), is spiraling down into an operatic despair that feels as doomed as Purcel and Tate’s Queen. Michael, whose part seems both over-written and shockingly shallow, doesn’t seem too eager to leave his beauty-queen wife, Crystal, played by the playwright herself, Rosebrock (Blue Ridge, Singles in Agriculture) in a swirl of self-help confidence-building catch phrases that rings true and false, all at the same time.
When one drink becomes a bottle, and Nora can’t quite keep her facilities in order; “Who’s Andrew?” she asks, Nora, brazenly and boldly personified by Khosh, fades and falls into a horrifying destruction of self and soul. As directed by Mikhaela Mahony (Noise of the Future) with a somewhat unfocused all-over-the-place eye that does eventually offer up some solid and surprising doses of tension, humor, and horror, the play goes dark quickly. The wonderful set by Angelica Borrero (Soldier X), lighting by Christina Watanabe (Daniel’s Husband), costumes by Audrey Nauman (Mope), and sound by Almeda Beynon (Theatreworks USA’s Pete the Cat) magnificently opens up and engages us with Nora’s mother, Julie (Davi) and her wonderfully wry and straight-talking lady-friend and roommate of some sorts, Ethel, played perfectly by the talented Dawn McGee (Pittsburgh Public’s Between Riverside and Crazy). Out there somewhere, in their far away home, discussing “Designing Women“, vibrators, love, and a religious structure that sits heavy on the heart, we start to piece together the back story of Nora. This is where the seed of cynicism was planted, somewhere deep inside Nora during her upbringing, swimming in a sea of religious morality and judgmental upbringing.
Embedded in the early moments of the classic opera is a song, the First Sailor’s Song; “Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, and silence their mourning with vows of returning, though never intending to visit them more.” and in those lyrics we find Michael and what many musicologists consider to be the moral of Dido and Aeneas, “that young women should not succumb to the advances and promises of ardent young men” (Harris, Ellen T. (1990) p.17) or they will be abandoned and ruined. When Nora finally and viciously sees the light, hitting rock bottom hard (good job, fight director: Alex J. Gould), Nora finds her way home to the difficult and complicated comfort of home and mother. Dido in Idaho is as uncomfortable to watch at the end of Act One, as it is for Nora to navigate towards her mother for salvation in Act Two, and without Ethel’s voice of reason, fortitude, humor, and pushes towards reconciliation, the little hope that this quest for reconnection and counsel would have vanished into the fog of fantasy. After the destructive Nora and in turn, the audience, having such a hard time finding connection within the two-dimensional mother, the piece as a whole comes together miraculously and it all starts to make sense. We discover, with her, that only when Nora starts to see her mother through the eyes of her younger self can the fog lift, and the safe harbor can be seen, even though it might be far off in the distance.
Powerful and deep, the balance of comedy and surreal destruction is at moments muddled, as are the first few scenes of love and self-help, but this story of love and despair holds together at the end of Nora’s voyage. It doesn’t have to fall away in the same manner as it does for the tragic Queen. There will be no ordering of the “cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart but keep here your watch and never never never part” (Dido’s Lament) because in Idaho, this Dido has some other options.