Leave it to Jerry Springer to stir up a little trouble even when he's nowhere in sight.
For months the New Stage Collective theater troupe has planned to close its sixth season by staging the regional premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera, a satirical musical that explores society's obsession with celebrity and what reality TV could evolve into given its relentless pursuit for ever more extreme experiences.
Inspired by the daily TV talk show hosted by former Cincinnati mayor-turned-schlockmeister Jerry Springer, the opera's first act portrays the taping of a particularly wild episode with a transsexual adulteress, adult diaper-wearing sexual fetishists and tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members as guests. As in real life, the show's audience eggs on the action while Springer is pestered by an "inner Valkyrie" that serves as his conscience.
At one point, ol' Jerry even ponders what might have been if he'd stayed in politics and hadn't been side-tracked by the scandal that erupted when he wrote a check to pay for the services of a prostitute. "Some things should always be paid for in cash," a wistful Springer says.
The weirdness intensifies in the second part, when a bewildered Springer wakes up in the afterlife to confront unruly guests that include Jesus, Satan, Adam, Eve, the Virgin Mary and — ultimately — God him/her/itself.
New Stage describes the play as "a fascinating mix of the highest form of art and the lowest form of culture: opera and daytime television."
Although the opera doesn't open here until June 26, New Stage received a letter in March from America Needs Fatima (ANF), an ultra-conservative Catholic group, warning that it would stage a protest outside the troupe's Over-the-Rhine theater unless the production was cancelled.
"The show is vulgar beyond description and is an egregious display of blasphemy," the letter stated.
"Over 82 percent of America is Christian. Millions are insulted by this show ... nothing like this should be seen in public."
Jerry Springer: The Opera definitely isn't for the meek-hearted or viewers who tend to clutch their pearls when they hear a blue word. One song has a chorus that's an ode to "in-bred, three nipple cousin fuckers." But it carries a content advisory that warns ticket buyers of potentially offensive themes and extensive coarse language and is restricted to patrons ages 17 and older.
"It's designed to offend you, that's the conceit of the show," says Alan Patrick Kenny, New Stage's artistic director. "It's a comedy. It's art, not advocacy. It's not advocating anything that's going on up on the stage."
Regardless of the content advisory, though, ANF simply doesn't want anyone to see the show. When New Stage refused to scuttle the opera, the Pennsylvania-based group began inundating the theater with letters, telephone calls and postcards from around the nation — more than 14,000 so far. On some days, New Stage received about 1,000 pieces of mail.
"I was not shocked the show was receiving some protest," Kenny says. "I was shocked that it happened so early. I certainly didn't expect the Postal Service to show up with a crate of mail every day."
Robert Ritchie, ANF's executive director, didn't return calls seeking comment.
On Ritchie's blog, he describes the group's mission: "Because she is the solution for our times, our mission is to spread devotion to our Lady of Fatima, and the holy rosary, and to oppose blasphemy in the public square."
Kenny is taking the situation in stride. Good art of any type — including theater — should make viewers a little uncomfortable and stay with them for a while, he says.
"I like to do work that challenges the status quo and causes us to think," Kenny says. "Movies really don't do that anymore, but theater does. My job as an artist is to tell a good story that has some energy, some passion, some insight and entertainment value."
America Needs Fatima is affiliated with the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. (It seems the God worshipped by the group's followers also apparently advocates for private property rights.) The group, considered a cult by some, was founded in Brazil by Plinio Corréa De Oliveira in 1960. Plinio claimed to have a "private, prophetic charism" enabling him to look at a young man's face or photo and discern if the Virgin Mary had selected him to be one of her "warrior monks."
The group's past targets have included the film The Da Vinci Code, certain parade floats at Mardi Gras and a "dress-up Jesus" doll sold by Urban Outfitters.
Oddly, the only other U.S. production of Jerry Springer: The Opera to receive protests was a Carnegie Hall concert last January in New York City. Productions also were staged during the past year in Chicago, Las Vegas, Memphis, Minneapolis and Des Moines, Iowa, with nary a picket sign to be found.
Cincinnati's reputation as a hotbed for conservatism and large Catholic population likely prompted ANF to make its stand here.
"I know there are representatives for America Needs Fatima in Cincinnati," Kenny says. "Given the city's history with the First Amendment, I'm sure that had to be a part of it."
The play isn't pure titillation or shock for shock's sake. Like all fine satire, it's meant to press certain cultural hot buttons.
As The New York Times wrote, "Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's rhapsodic look at talk-show trashiness has the power to exhilarate that you associate with old-style Broadway musicals. Caricaturing or condemning reality television is easy; finding the emotional hunger behind the same phenomenon and translating it into witty, oddly moving music is genius."
Jerry Springer: The Opera is the only work in British history to win "best musical" in all of their major theater awards: Olivier Awards, Critic's Choice, Evening Standard and What's On Stage. It also weathered a controversy there when a High Court ruled in December 2007 that a TV version broadcast on the taxpayer-funded BBC Two wasn't criminal. Judges said the show "in context" couldn't be considered blasphemous because it wasn't aimed at Christianity but was a parody of the talk show genre.
But just as Islamic jihadists were angered by Danish newspapers publishing cartoons that lampooned Mohammed, so too do U.S. religious conservatives declare Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary off-limits for artistic interpretation.
Kenny isn't fazed.
"There's no better place in the world to stage Jerry Springer: The Opera than Cincinnati," he says. "People here still know him and love him in a way that nowhere else does." ©
Gregory Flannery on CityBeat and the CCV at citybeat.com. See "On Second Thought."