In this round of NOLA Defender's 2013 Fringe Fest reviews, puppets cover history and mythology takes to the aerials.
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME
Somehow, The Underground Railroad Game manages to balance entertainment with cringe worthy discomfort. Groundswell, a theatre troupe from Philadelphia, tells the true story of two teachers, a black woman and a white man, who used the titular tool in their own middle school classrooms.
Carolyn (Jean Kidwell) and Stewart (Scott Shepherd) break their students (the audience) into two teams, Union and Confederate armies. The goal for students is to either free or capture as many slaves, represented by black baby dolls, as possible.
Obviously, this is a problematic educational tactic.
Kidwell and Shepherd’s stage chemistry blossoms as quickly as their romantic relationship. Throughout their lectures and their intimate moments, race is omnipresent, though rarely addressed directly.
Although there is a traceable plot, the action is not linear. One scene transforms from an on-stage slavery presentation, starring Carolyn, into a candle-lit, silhouetted sex scene. The end brings the message of the play full-circle, without shoving a clear moral down the audience’s throats.
Race is a dangerous topic. “Edgy” humor alone cannot advance the dialogue surrounding issues such as power dynamics in interracial dating, and the tendency for well-meaning white people to drown out black voices.
Because it so unapologetically addresses these topics, Underground Railroad Game is a Fringe standout, the kind of play that mainstream theatre lovers and avant-garde snobs can both enjoy. Kidwell and Sheppard’s stellar performances make the crowd, or the class, laugh, cringe, and often do both at the same time.
Underground Railroad Game is a 14+ show, playing again at Den of Muses (Architech St.) on Friday, 11/22 at 9 p.m., Saturday, 11/23 at 11 p.m., and Sunday, 11/24, at 9 p.m.
STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE
If you haven’t seen traditional Wayang (shadow puppet) theatre, you must. The Red String Wayang Theatre of Gulfport, Miss., combines traditional techniques with modern storytelling and culturally relevant themes. Struggle for Justice features a remarkable number of puppets and sets, all artfully designed by director Michael Richardson and made in Indonesia. The puppets are transparently colored in great detail, and are surprisingly expressive (for two dimensional objects). Each character has a distinct voice, way of moving and recorded sound effects that help bring the action to life. The company also uses the traditional drumbeat, usually to signal a character’s exit, which adds gravity to the performance.
Shadow theatre is particularly adept at depicting violence, and the story of life in the Jim Crow South provides plenty of opportunities for shadows to swirl into chaos and then land in color on the screen with a clear image of a lynching, fire or other travesty. The story itself covers quite a number of years within the brief time of the production, focusing on a family of Mississippi sharecroppers who are saving up to buy the land they’ve been working. A relative from Detroit comes to visit, bringing different ideas of relationships between whites and blacks, and shakes things up in their small town, resulting in tragedy. Years later, the sharecroppers’ son, Albert, goes off to fight in World War II, which starts the conversation about whether or not fighting together in the war will change race relations back home. For Albert, it does—he saves the life of a white soldier in the Black Forest of Germany and the two become friends. After the war, Albert is committed to the cause of equal rights, despite the fear his activism causes his pregnant wife. When his white war buddy visits him, their small town is shaken up again.
In the wide array of characters presented on the shadow screen, Red String Wayang Theatre represents a broad range of voices on race relations during a pivotal time in the history of the American South. Although some characters seem to be flattened caricatures, this is in keeping with the shadow puppet tradition of social critique. The real central character here is the forward motion of history, where a series of events over a number of years lead inevitably to a call to action.
Struggle for Justice plays at the Backyard Ballroom (3519 St. Claude Ave.) Friday, November 22 at 9pm, Saturday, November 23 at 11pm, and Sunday, November 24 at 5pm.
ICE SCREAM THEATER
A youthful figure emerges from behind a chest. She twirls in a pink tutu. A montage of twisted fantasies plays on the screen behind her— Disney villains, witches, tigers and Zeppelin. She drops her pink tutu to the ground and the audience knows there is no going back.
Through monologue and a multimedia montage, Ice Cream Theater, created by Christy Soto and directed by John LaTier, follows a girl’s quest to escape a house of addiction. From snorting coke off a dilapidated dollhouse occupied by liquor bottles to defying the odds and getting a college degree, the story takes various twists and turns only to end up on the same note it began, despair.
It’s a compelling story carried by the impressive acting skills of Nicole Lovince, but one that becomes overshadowed by its props. During major points in Lovince’s monologue the screen behind her flashes pivotal looks from dangerous, female anti-heroes like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, a blood-covered Sissy Spacek in Carrie and a determined witch of The Craft. As a result, the audience gets lost in the pop-culture backdrop, rather than paying attention to the foreground. No matter how good the script, it’s difficult to compete with the movies.
Despite hogging the attention, the screen conveys atmosphere and the emotional state of the character as the play moves through time. By the end, a woman on the verge, like Uma on her way to kill Bill, is not so far from a powerful woman.
While the monologue shows fluidity and economy, the hour-long play drags on a bit. Although compelling, the subject matter is cumbersome and difficult to sustain without becoming a weight for the audience. In an attempt to break up the monologue, LaTier and Soto add singing, a device that seems just as indulgent as alcohol. Really, Lovince shines most when speaking. Her singing is pleasant, but prevents the plot from moving forward. Regardless of length, Lovince maintains a vibrant energy throughout and never misses a beat.
It isn’t until the end of the show when the audience realizes that her story of addiction is true. Moving from fiction to reality, the screen trades out movie stills for photographs of a single mother. Although she looks benevolent enough, she’s clearly the addict mother of Lovince’s character. Finally, the subject of the play gets a face and, surprisingly, it is not that of a villain.
Dynamic, heartfelt and masterfully performed, Ice Cream is definitely worth a see. Even if it’s not all ice cream and tutus, buried deep under the despair, there’s something sweet.
Catch the show at The Old Firehouse (718 Mandeville) Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 9 p.m. or Sunday at 11 p.m.
The Mudlark Public Theatre presents another page of sordid New Orleans history with Blue Book: A Dioramic Guide to The Days and Ways of Storyville. The production combines the Mudlark’s usual mix of puppets, shadow puppets, and music for an informative and entertaining journey through the rise and fall of New Orleans’ red light district. The subject matter provides ample opportunities for lewd acts between puppets (a sure crowd pleaser) but Pandora Andrea Gastelum’s writing also communicates more subtle themes, particularly in the connections between legalized prostitution and race relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Blue Book starts at the very beginning—comically depicting Iberville’s plea for more women from France to prevent relationships between the Canadian settlers and the native populations. Iberville’s desperation about this matter, along with his thick French accent, had the whole room laughing. From there, the puppeteers, who control and their puppets from behind, usher the audience swiftly through history, tracing connections between the first female settlers (prostitutes), the sale of light skinned “fancy girls” at the slave trade, and the development of Storyville, with the obsession and commodification of mixed-race beauty as a through-line between eras. Lulu White rises to be a powerful Madam, making different claims about her race and background depending on the fashions of the moment. We move in and out of her story for much of the play, as the puppeteers also give a complete, bordello-by-bordello tour of Storyville in its heyday.
Music by Salvatore Geloso (guitar) and Sarah McCoy (keyboard) sets the old-timey, lighthearted atmosphere and the quick pace for Blue Book. The puppets themselves are beautiful and strange, while the puppeteers’ voices are expressive (and frequently hilarious), and occasionally break into song. It’s remarkable how many characters are brought to life by just five puppeteers (Pandora Andrea Gastelum, Rheanna Keefe-Powers, Aaron Damon Porter, Milissa Orzolke, and Ben Aleshire). The production's most impressive element was the timing, under the direction of Pandora Andrea Gastelum. The story covers a lot of ground, but is divided into brief, concise segments, and never lags or wanders. Alternating between shadow and three dimensional puppetry techniques adds to the energy and rhythm throughout the play.
Blue Book: A Guide to Storyville plays at the Mudlark Public Theatre Thursday, November 21 at 9pm, Friday, November 22 at 9pm, Saturday, November 23 at 3pm and 11pm, and Sunday, November 24, at 5pm and 9pm.
Icarus starts out as a typical romance: winged boy falls (beautifully) from sky, girl steals boy’s feathers while he’s on the ground, boy wakes up and a flying dance battle ensues. Both aerialist dancers, Rachel Strickland (who also directed the piece) and Meredith Starnes, are a pleasure to watch, and carry the story through dance and gesture. But, although they claim to be “retelling the story the world got wrong,,” the story isn’t really the point here. The piece feels more like a meditation on the joy of movement (and especially flight) occasioned by the hopeful re-imagining of an Icarus who survives the fall, and falls in love.
The love story begins on the ground, as Icarus instructs the girl in choreography that imitates flight. This middle section of joyful synchronized dance stands out in the context of the action that mostly unfolds vertically on the ropes, as the two explore the freedom of moving through space. Icarus leads the girl into flight in a touching sequence of movement where the two grip hold of each other in the air and weight of their bodies balance each other.
The music, by Jym Daly, is a mix of steady, repetitive drums with cello and distortion. At times, the beat fades away and the music is more ambient, and at other times it grows into a dance beat. The most exciting part of the performance takes place after the lovers are established, as the beat grows, and the two performers compete with each other on spinning hoops hung side by side. During Icarus’ frenzied spinning, her wig comes off, revealing her flowing blond hair. Her lover recoils from her, and the music shifts entirely to slow, wandering piano improvisation as Icarus returns to her rope alone. Rachel Strickland’s solo aerialist performance here is the most expressive in the piece.
The stage is spare, allowing the backdrop of Mardi Gras floats at the Den of Muses to become part of the dream-like scene. A stagehand crosses the stage from time to time adjusting and setting up the ropes and hoops, which increases the dream-state feeling of the piece—as if the performers are sleepwalking.
You can see Icarus, by Madame Rex of San Francisco, at Den of Muses Friday, November 22 at 11pm, Saturday, November 23 at 5pm, or Sunday, November 24 at 7pm.