Where's Nedda when you need her?

Neveah was the 70th most popular name for baby girls last year, according to yesterday's New York Times and the Social Security Administration. It seems 4,457 newborns were named for heaven spelled backwards. Those little girls will still be explaining their name to people in the year 2070.

I grew up in Nebraska during the Lawrence Welk "Champagne Music" years. This made me strongly opposed to things spelled backwards. Lawrence Welk's television show was sponsored by Serutan fiber laxative. "It's natures spelled backwards." My colon still clinches whenever something is spelled backwards! Nebraska, of course, is Ak-Sar-Ben spelled backwards. Ak-Sar-Ben was the rodeo and horserace location in Omaha, as well as the royal court for Omaha's elite debutantes. The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben were created in 1895 to promote family entertainment in Omaha to compete with the Nebraska State Fair sixty miles away in Lincoln. The crowning of a royal court of debs in the Cornhusker State was pretty distant from the real life of workers at the Omaha stockyards and meat-packing plants, the Storz and Falstaff Brewery Companies, the brickyards and railyards, or the minimum-wage telemarketing cold-callers of the late-Twentieth century.

Verismo is "razor-sharp psychological realism," according to Fred Plotkin in his book, Opera 101. Opera in the late Nineteenth century was moving to a new kind of subject. "Audiences no longer could create a psychological distance between themselves and the gods, kings, queens, dukes, and great literary characters portrayed onstage. What they saw in verismo was a re-enactment of real life."

The 2005-2006 Dallas Opera season kicked off with Leoncavallo's verismo "Pagliacci" from 1892. The centerpiece of the Dallas production was a tiny pink trailer, home to a traveling clown Canio, his young wife, Nedda, and the rest of their troupe. The opera opens with a prologue delivered directly to the audience by the hunchback Tonio, one of the actors in the troupe. Tonio reminds the audience that beneath the theatrical facade, artists harbor genuine emotions and real passions. Instead of theatrical tricks, he says, the opera will present a "slice of life" with real laughter and tears. He then orders the curtain to rise, and the action begins.

"Pagliacci" is a violent, tragic story of the working poor. Nickel & Dimed: (On) Not Getting By in America holds plenty of material for stage-adaptor Joan Holden to create a work of art as tragic as "Pagliacci", as comic as "Working Girls", or as powerfully verismo as a Mike Wallace expose. Unfortunately, the adaptation does not use that material to create art or even convey the results of Barbara Ehrenreich's undercover experience. Beneath the didactical facade, the profiled workers harbor genuine emotions and real passions. I wish Holden had loosed the reins on those emotions and passions. The people struggling to live on wages from WalMart, franchise restaurants, chain hotels, and housecleaning services jobs are much more interesting than Holden's version of whiny writer Barb. They should be the core of the play with their tragic stories, their stoicism, and their humor.

I applaud Kitchen Dog Theatre for providing the regional premiere of the play. I wish "Nickel and Dimed" had been as moving as their "Cloud Tectonics" earlier this spring. If your job is not heaven, try spelling your name backwards.

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