Jon Kevin Lazarus as Benj and Ren Marie as Voula in 'Where the Whangdoodle Sings'

Jon Kevin Lazarus as Benj and Ren Marie as Voula in 'Where the Whangdoodle Sings' (Courtesy of Generous Company / January 13, 2014)

Getting out of the local cultural mainstream, I recently took in the premiere of "Where the Whangdoodle Sings" by Generous Company at Theatre Project and the first staged presentation of "Red Giant" by Rhymes With Opera at the Windup Space.

"Whangdoodle," a play by K. Frithjof Peterson, struck me as a rather forced fantasy, centering around a haunted tattoo artist named Voula and her equally haunted client, Benj, a stained glass window maker.

The script combines a whole lot of issues -- myth, baseball (Hank Aaron's career gets particular emphasis), suicide, family ties, secrets, shame, regret, illusion -- and takes its time getting to its philosophical points. Many a scene calls out for editing and tighter focus.

Still, there's something to be said about a play that brings to life one of the odder creatures from folklore, the inspiration for the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain," which is woven throughout the piece.

As the Whangdoodle explains, "I'm a mythical hobo bird. I transact in trickery, thievery, guilt and coercion." He's also testy, given that a children's animated movie is about to paint a way-too-goody-goody portrait of the species.

The Whangdoodle demands that Benj illustrate the truth (at least this bird's-eye view of the truth). Meanwhile, Voula's work on Benj triggers unexpected visions for both of them. And the fate of Benj's brother, lying in a coma after what might have been an accident caused by Benj, is another prominent matter.

Sometimes witty, sometimes poetic, often obtuse, the play has been well-served by Generous Company, which developed "Whangdoodle" at its WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory four years ago and gave it a reading at Theatre Project in 2012.

The cast for the premiere staging, fluently directed by J. D. Sivert, neatly communicates the strongest material, including sharp observations about how we cope with what we know and what we only think we know. Bits of humor are delivered in telling fashion, too.

Ren Marie (Voula) and Jon Kevin Lazarus (Benj) reveal tight chemistry. William R. McHattie makes a forceful Whangdoodle. Will Carson brings intensity, if not always clarity of articulation, to the curious role of Bad Henry, "myth-eater." Even if, like me, you find yourself not quite convinced by the play, the performance should leave you impressed.

The production continues through Sunday.

Rhymes With Opera, one of the coolest DIY groups in town, put together an intriguing program over the weekend. Two programs, as it turned out.

Common to both was "Red Giant,"a short opera with music by Adam Matlock and sci-fi libretto by Brian Slattery. The work, commissioned by RWO, received its first full staging at these performances.

On Saturday night, Erik Spangler's "Damascus Mix" had its premiere. It was to have been repeated on Sunday afternoon, the show I attended, but had to be set aside because the soprano soloist, Bonnie Lander, was unwell -- fortunately, she felt strong enough to reprise her role in "Red Giant."

In place of the Spangler work, soprano Elisabeth Halliday and saxophonist Zach Herchen, stepped up with two fascinating substitutions: "Fire Balloon" by Amy Beth Kirsten, and "The Person In The Room Wishes To Be Left Alone" by RWO co-artistic director George Lam.

Music for voice and sax is quite the rarefied genre. The contributions by both of these composers reveal a knack for exploiting the human and manufactured instruments in colorful, finely nuanced form (Kirsten gets extra mileage out of the breaths both musicians take). The pieces were vividly performed.

"Red Giant" concerns three Earthlings heading into the deep unknown via spaceship, while their old planet is being consumed by the sun. If the libretto sounds at times like one of the more arty "Star Trek" episodes, it conjures up an effective vision of our endangered species adrift in an unsettling sea of distant stars.

The best moment may be when a character says of the voyagers' fate when they find a new home: "We'll know how to do everything better." LOL.

Matlock's score makes good use of minimalist pulses and patterns, with lots of lyricism holding everything together. Vocal lines, including a fair amount of sprechtstimme (this helped Lander handle the assignment  while under the weather), emerge naturally against the subtly colored orchestration.

Halliday, baritone Robert Maril and what-a-trouper Lander sang and acted sensitively. The orchestra, conducted by Lam, did fine work.

The staging, directed by Britt Olsen-Ecker, featured a spare set by Dustin Morris, effective lighting by David Crandall, and costumes by Rachel Christensen that suggested the opera's subtite could have been "Scarecrows in Space."

The production moves north to Brooklyn and Jersey City this weekend.