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Great Performances: The Real McTeague

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Don’t miss this genuine, entertaining oddity. Director Robert Altman (The Player) has woven together three mediums to present a new version of Frank Norris’ 1899 novel, McTeague, about an arrogant dentist who betrays and brutalizes nearly everyone he meets, including his wife. In The Real McTeague, Altman has writer Studs Terkel read sections of the book aloud as we watch filmed scenes from composer William Bolcom’s 1992 opera McTeague and clips from Greed, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 movie based on the novel.

In this way, book, music, and film combine to give this old story new life. Though basically little more than, as Terkel puts it, the story of ”a guy who killed his wife because she refused to give him some dough for some booze,” The Real McTeague takes on the power of a classical tragedy. It’s a little odd to hear Ben Heppner, in the title role, bend a toothaching patient back in his dentist’s chair and warble, ”Would you like eeeeeether?” But it’s the contrast between the banal and the dramatic that gives this production its power.

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