Monday, June 14, 2010

GSW9: Festival Report VII

Tess Elliot has this report from the final day of the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theatre Festival in NYC:
We saw Laura Heit's miniature theater, called “Bureau of Small Requests: the 76 Departments of Tomorrow” and for the smallest show, they put the most people in the theater to see it. I think the reasoning is that she designs her shows to be displayed on video (though the color on the video was really bad). But I saw her today performing her miniature circus in the Family Program and it was an entirely different kind of experience that mattered to me, so I wanted to write about her work in one report. For the adults, she has a much more complicated set, but keeps an emotional distance that bothered me. She talks about a true story about having a wandering eye, and all the surgeries that went on to fix it. Her entire point is that her eyes don't get along, so how can you trust what you see? You need that other point of view, she says. She even gives you an anatomical picture about it. Nothing seemed to help. Then they did an experimental procedure by inserting Botox right into the eye muscles that won't get along. It's all like a science hall lecture, when I want more from her about her feelings. I know that without stereo vision, you can't have depth perception. How did she feel seeing that way? My brother is legally blind from having wandering eyes, and was never allowed to drive. He and his pals at school, also in the same boat, hung out telling Helen Keller jokes. They were fierce in their “nothing is sacred” way of laughing at handicaps. They were not always treated kindly by normal kids. My late husband lost the sight in one eye, and broke almost every glass trying to wash them in the sink. I would hear the glass breaking, and then him swearing at the glass and his inability to know how not to break it. He wouldn't drive after that, either. How did Laura deal with things that are really personal in a flat world?

Yet, when Laura pulls out her miniature circus for the kids—she keeps them tuned in and laughing at the imaginative way she invents a paper circus that is matchbook size. The grand old joke about all the clowns getting out of the car was a scroll inside a matchbook car full of impossible things like a whale coming out, along with her Mom holding a pizza and being chased by hungry teenagers and a dozen clowns, etc. Everyone was charmed and laughing, and Laura herself was obviously having fun. The kids sitting next to me who were bored at the more kid like show just loved the miniature circus. They were my litmus test. Somehow, that emotional truth ought to be for adults, too. I wanted it. She is smart, creative and often an ingenious designer of tiny set pieces, and I guess I just want her to be able to show me how she felt having to cope with that terrible uncertainty. She gave us all little tags to pose uncertainties on, and I am tempted to find one and send it to her care of her university in Los Angeles.

Dr. Neff's Incredible Puppet Company
Rip Van Winkle

Okay, right up front I must say that I do love traditional toy theater, and their little stage is a beauty. They are the couple (George and Ann Neff) who made Trish's toy theater. Their own theater is just a jewel. The sets are like beautiful watercolors, and part of the story is on tape while they speak the rest of it. It felt like a good balance of technology that didn't get in the way of the story but allowed them to have some sound effects they didn't have to make. But it was the only show where after about 15 minutes, five teenage girls sitting in the front row, got up and stoop-walked out of the show. I was so tempted to trip them! A kind person would have sat there and contemplated something interesting or their navel, rather than disrupt the performance. It didn't help that Rip Van Winkle was one of my favorite stories, and I treasure my book illustrated by Arthur Rackham. But crawl out they did, and the Neff's (being consumate pros) never gave them the slightest look. They were smooth, and precise in their timing. I wanted to curl up because it felt like being read to when I was little (no relative was safe from me). Perhaps that is why I love the traditional performances as much as the more demanding ones.

This was just a delightful re-telling of a familiar story with wonderful scenery and perfect characters. I am grateful to the Neff's for keeping that traditional art alive. I hung on every line, thanks to my fondness for Rip!

Justin Lander and Rose Frieman
(with her soon to be born bundle of joy...)
The Jolly Banker

This show was very funny indeed. The stage looks like a rebuilt old chicken coop, with mouse traps all around the proscenium outside, and string lights around the opening. They sing a twangy rustic harmony that is pleasant to hear, and was the interval music. It is a home-made Punch and Judy, only their cardboard characters have an edgy modern look, like Picasso drew them before he had his coffee. Their eyes are flounder-like on one side of the head, and each character also has a floating mouth full of grid-like teeth, to give you an idea of their cartoony style.

Punch and Judy are fighting over money, which everyone wants but no one has. At last, Punch decides to go to the banker to get some money with absolutely no concept of what he is doing. He gets a bag of money which Judy has already spent, and the banker proceeds to take their house in court. Punch goes to the police, a lawyer, and a congressman to no avail, though they all have their hands out for money, too. Punch at last believes they are all in cahoots to rob the people, and egged on by Judy, goes on a killing spree. Those mousetraps all had caps in them and were set off. At the end, Punch is consigned to Hell by God for messing up his good economic plan. I wasn't sure where I stood on that part, but punishment for killing is usually a good enough reason for a person going to Hell. Where was Judy in all this? Did she get off on a technicality? She is never seen again.

There was a funny interval (set changes are usually frequent in toy theater), where a chicken comes out of one side slot and trots across the proscenium to meet an egg coming out of the other side, finally answering the famous question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? The chicken was definitely first!

There is a very angry undertone in this story that fits perfectly into the tradition of Punch and Judy, along with the violence. There are many, many people who lost their homes in the crash that appears to have been caused by greedy, unregulated bankers making it look so easy to live beyond your means to millions of people. I applaud being able to take that anger and transform it into art, instead of resigning oneself to being helpless in the face of such massive power. Anyone remember the countdown for someone to go to prison for the Enron scandal?
Thanks, Tess, for the incredible reporting throughout the festival. I must admit I especially loved this last one since it included an individual who I consider a mentor - albeit an online one (the only way possible at present) - Ann Neff.

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