by John-Paul DeRosa

Julie as Escamilio, the matadorAttending Opening Night Carmen is a bit like watching a small, trusting child deeply engaged in play. The child takes command of all the physical objects in the room, rechristens them according to her whim, and engages them as players in her fantasy, talking to them and to herself with animation. Every so often the child breaks character and speaks to you directly, debating aloud about what will come next, then quickly returns to the cover of her playacting.

Imagine this child a mature woman, speaking in French when she is in character and English when she is addressing you, as she promotes, produces, directs, conducts, acts, sings and dances the entire content of the opera Carmen from her post as toilet matron at the opera house with a cast of mops, dusters, clothes pins, coffee cups and spoons, a janitor’s pail, a “Caution When Wet” sign, a small shopping cart, and a flashlight. Picture her standing at an easel, introducing each new scene with a conscientious air while wearing a false nose and glasses, drawing pictures in a style reminiscent of the illustrations to the Little Prince. Or making a red carpet for the opera stars to tread on on opening night out of toilet paper, or humming the overture to Carmen while presenting her back to the audience, conducting a phantom orchestra. Or playing themes from the opera on her signature double bass with a toilet brush, throwing in a few rock ’n’ roll riffs.

Perhaps you now begin to have a sense of Opening Night Carmen. This is a very special kind of opera, in which objects come to life with individuality as only in a Hans Christian Andersen tale and seem to possess an energy of their own, like the ball in the movie Awakenings that seemed to reanimate the paralyzed patients. Or perhaps it is the spirit of play itself that embodies this energy, cleverly preserved by Ms. Goell throughout the show by her method of reinventing each scene as she goes, muttering to herself and to the audience how she might achieve each effect and drawing us into the game with occasional requests for assistance.

Ms. Goell changes her persona numerous times to comic effect, ducking behind a screen and emerging not only with a different mop on her head, but with a totally different posture and address, as when she becomes a bullfighter and declaims “I am a Matador, I do not mop the floor!” But the frame of a child’s only half-believed fantasy is not violated during these stock stage effects, for Ms. Goell never stops muttering, acknowledging mistakes or debating in which language she should speak as she performs these presto-chango’s. And her characters also break their tone continually, as when Don Jose drops his Latin persona and says “this camping life is not for me” or Carmen complains to the dancing girls who betray her “Thanks a lot, girls!”

Shari Lewis famously enacted a melodrama with a single handkerchief as a prop: as a handlebar mustache signifying the villain “You must pay the rent!”; as a kerchief denoting the poor woman: “But I can’t pay the rent!”; and a bowtie embodying the clean-cut hero: “I’ll pay the rent!”

Ms. Goell uses her props in much more zany fashion, as when her flashlight serves first as a fortune teller’s crystal ball and then as a spotlight played by a member of the audience on the avatar of a dancing Carmen—a mop wearing a dress standing in a janitor’s pail on wheels. Her shopping cart’s grill becomes Carmen’s jail bars, among other roles.

But Ms. Goell goes a step further than Ms. Lewis. One can’t really imagine Shari Lewis blowing her nose with the handkerchief at the end of her act, let alone doing so just before turning it into the hero’s bowtie. But the play-actors in Opening Night Carmen never stop being mops and ordinary objects. It is the tea or coffee cup turned solider with which Ms. Goell begins the most impressive scene in which she introduces all the main characters: sugar bowls and creamers as soldiers, Carmen and other girls as dusters, and, most happily, Don Jose as a singing cleanser spray bottle. Later that same cup will team up with a spoon to reproduce the sound of castanets with surprising success. But in between, and throughout the performance, Ms. Goell continues to sip out of it, never letting it depart from its workaday role, whatever flight of fantasy she might employ it for the next minute. Similarly, the bright clothes pins that serve as the horns of a bull, and later as the cigars of old boys at the tavern, are strangely in character when they play themselves and hold up the curtain behind which Carmen’s red shoes are observed cavorting as she is making love to Don Jose.

It turns out that these everyday objects, all one needs to be joyously absurd on any stage, do play themselves in Ms. Goell’s traveling life, fitting into her trunk that is also a tea-table, a bull’s body and part of a tent in the show, as she rides the train from one city in Europe to another on her show’s tour.

What a refreshing way to see objects, art and life.