Tag Archives: Puppets

TornKid at Lady Fest

As the name would suggest, Lady Fest theater festival in New York shines a light on womanhood in all its wondrous forms.  In the supportive atmosphere of The Tank, female and female identifying artists are provided the opportunity to be heard by youthful spirits of all ages.  Currently on stage in the smaller of the two houses is Tornkid, a multimedia fable for the times, presented in partnership with Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective (BAPAC).  Written by Katelynn Kenney, the script vividly illustrates the emotions underlying the immigrant experience, using Southeast Asian and Pacific Indigenous creation stories as a springboard to explore the quest for belonging.

Struggling to fit in with both traditional Asian family life and the typical school experience of American children, Tornkid literally tears themselves in two.  Sadly, their other half runs off with the voice, pointing out that Tornkid hasn’t really made use of it.  Refusing to be doomed to a life of silence, Tornkid journeys through mystical lands, determined to be reunited with the parts of themselves that have been lost.

Use of the inclusive pronoun “they” to describe Tornkid is significant since exploring identity is essential to both the story and the storytelling technique.  Tornkid is pulled apart by two distinct ways of being as well as an environment that constantly shifts between comforting and strange.  The actors, too, morph identities as they move from role to role, often employing intriguing masks created by Tara Cariaso and Aaron Elson of Waxing Moon Masks.

The experience is similar to the ones frequently offered at The New Victory on a Saturday afternoon.  Typical of myths, the story is very episodic, though the through-line is strong.  A dragon-headed magical guide addresses the audience directly, explaining that we are the ancestors.  She elicits our help at critical junctures, encouraging us to participate by adding claps, slaps and clicks and other sound effects.  Metaphors are creatively made concrete by most of the characters.  Each interaction makes Tornkid stronger and brings the goal into clearer focus.

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Tree Spirit in a previous workshop of TornKid

Surasree Das lends tremendous warmth and stirs compassion as she pantomimes her way through Tornkid’s unusual journey.  Her most powerful encounters are with a Tree Spirit and a Sea Warrior, two fantastic puppets created by Jess Rassp and given voice by Elizabeth Ung who also provides unique hand-decorated costumes.  The narration supplied by the Magic Teller is sometimes stilted, but actress Kim Le sweetly and enthusiastically engages with the audience.  Marela Kay Minosa and Mika Nakano round out the cast, playing a half dozen roles between them.

Co-directors Cara Hinh and Donna Ibale don’t yet have the knack for arranging movement appropriately in 3/4 round, staging too much of the action for the center section.  But this is a minor distraction with so much creativity clearly in evidence.  The puppet movements are nicely choreographed and literally extend the actors performances. There are also wonderful props by Pauline Lamb which draw on childlike images.  Sounds not provided by the audience are designed by C. Swan-Streepy with the mystical atmosphere capped off by Miranda Poett’s lighting.

BAPAC’s inaugural production, this second iteration of Tornkid delivers an upbeat message in an inventive way.  This worthy work is being hosted at The Tank (312 W 36th Street) a nonprofit that strives to remove economic barriers for emerging artists.  Remaining performances of this workshop production are Saturday, August 10 at 3 PM and 7 PM and Sunday, August 11 at 3 PM. Lady Fest runs through Wednesday, August 28.  Tickets range from $0 – $25.  For a complete performance calendar and to purchase tickets in advance visit www.thetanknyc.org/ladyfest.

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Ajijaak on Turtle Island

In Ajijaak on Turtle Island, chicks are hatched, buffalo dance, and butterflies flutter overhead to the delight of young theater-goers.  The multimedia piece is the creation of Heather Henson in collaboration with an array of First Nations performers and her famed father Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.  Storytelling is imparted through song, dance, and projections in addition to the expected marvelous marionettes.

Ajijaak © 2018 Richard Termine

Ajijaak on Turtle Island © 2018 Richard Termine

A synopsis is included in the program and should be shared with children before the curtain rises to help them get the most from the experience.  We are on Turtle Island — now known as North America — at a time when animals could talk to one another.  A young whooping crane named Ajijaak has been separated from her parents during a fire.  Her journey to find them on the Gulf Coast puts her in touch with deer, buffalo, coyotes, crabs and a few two-legged beings.  Each interaction teaches her something valuable and contributes to her “medicine bundle.”  These lessons will help her heal the world when the time comes to confront Mishibizhiw, the violent creature who is awakened from sleep whenever the earth is being exploited.

The visuals are quite stunning and work in harmony.  Multimedia images of nature are combined with music and movement in support of the environmental message.  Indigenous pieces by Dawn Avery & Larry Mitchell, Kevin Tarrant and Ty Defoe are punctuated by two drummer/chanters along with conventional instruments.  The script —  also by Ty Defoe based on a story by Heather Henson — is episodic, as is typical of a work geared to children.  The narrative breaks down in spots and some of the dialogue is stilted.  These weakness are largely overcome by the charm and warmth of the narrator Grandma Moon as embodied by Joan Henry.  Mishibizhiw’s entrance happens without an inciting incident, which seems a lost opportunity to really hit home the overarching theme. A highlight comes shortly after when the audience participates in the unique song meant to restore balance to the world.  It is a tune you will hear little voices continuing to sing throughout your walk to the subway, briefly pushing Baby Shark to the back of your mind.

Complementing Ms. Henry is Henu Josephine Tarrant who gives Ajijaak a soaring angelic voice worthy of a bird.  The remainder of the performers — Tony Enos, Wren Jeng, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore — are uneven in skill, but all provide enthusiasm and heartwarming interaction with the audience.  Dancers Jake Montanaro, Jennifer Sanchez, Euni Shim and Dormeshia Ward fill the background and theater aisles, uplifting spirits, sometimes with the aid of kites representing, birds, butterflies and such.  Traditional dances choreographed and performed by Tarrant, Raymore and Enos add spark and authenticity.

The set by Christopher and Justin Swader features six drum heads representing the heartbeat of Turtle Island. These also function as screens for the dramatic projections designed by Katherine Freer.  Rather than the all-black garb favored by most puppeteers, these artists sport bright colors in their wardrobe designed by Lux Haac with some pieces by Donna Zakowska.  This is in keeping with the cultural roots of the characters and plays up the relationship between the animals and their handlers.  

Presented by Ibex Puppetry, an entertainment company founded by Heather Henson that creates spectacles promoting themes in support of a healthy planet, Ajijaak on Turtle Island is intended as family entertainment.  Adults firmly in touch with their inner child should find enough to engage with here.  The recommended age is 7 and up, though I saw many pre-schoolers in attendance..  Your child should be able to sit still for 75 minutes, not interfere with performers in the aisles, and hold questions until the curtain falls.  There is an opportunity for them to participate in support of Aijijaak in the way past generations clapped in order to keep Tinkerbell alive.  Performances run through March 10 at the New Victory Theater.  For information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org.

A Real Boy

I was attracted to the concept of A Real Boy the moment I read the log line: Puppet parents adopt a human child. (This is not a spoiler. Even the most inexperienced of theatergoers is bound to notice this attribute of Max’s parents the moment they shuffle into his kindergarten classroom on their little wooden feet, strings and control handles attached.) The play lands some of the anticipated satirical punches, but it’s hard to make the argument that the darkly comic work is a total success.

To be clear, I can accept even the highest of concepts provided the writer stays within the boundaries of his own mythology.  Unfortunately parameters that are drawn in the first few minutes are broken almost immediately when a character who is supposed to live in a black-and-white world enters wearing blue glasses.  This is only the beginning of the muddled thoughts that swirl around what it means to be “puppet”.  How much do you or we acknowledge your “other part”: the obvious human member of Actors Equity who sometimes participates in a scene whenever tiny hands won’t do?  Do humans evolve into puppets simply with enough exposure?  If so, how does that translate in families with members who are not exactly mainstream?

The unclear vision of the Puppet Universe is just the beginning of playwright Stephen Kaplan’s challenges.  As the plot moves along, he creates a serious case of metaphorical whiplash. He can’t seem to make up his mind exactly what point he’s trying to make. The untraditional family stand-ins in for children with disabilities, transgender persons, and mixed race families and more before moving on to a vague “you be you.”   Any one of these statements could have been profound if followed through with conviction. Together they come up as ideological ambrosia salad.  And that’s before adding multiple snide asides about home schooling, ambitious local politicians, and online MBAs.

The cleverer sections of the work are hindered by the direction of Audrey Alford who, with the help of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer,  manages to ensure that every seat in the house becomes partial obstructed view.  Audience heads throughout the theater are constantly jostling for a position around the pillars, down to the floor, and over to a critical stage piece on the side.  I missed several important visual cues because they were not in my line of sight. This is fairly inexcusable given the the current configuration of the theater is about 60 seats.

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Brian Michael in A REAL BOY at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

Ms. Alford has also made some curious casting choices.  At the performance I attend, young Max is played by 20-something Kelley Selznick, a talented puppeteer, but not particularly gifted actress.  Max’s mother, Mary Ann Myers, is played by Jason Allan Kennedy George making his theatrical debut.  He’s fine in the role, but I found the selection of a tall male for the part a distraction from what more obviously makes Mary Ann different from other members of the PTA.  It is also hard to figure out how Max would find comfort with Miss Terry, played at a near-vibrating pitch by Jenn Remke.  More successful is Brian Michael, striking all the right notes as Max’s father distraught father, Peter Myers.  Breaking the tension with great timing is Jamie Geiger in the role of Principal Klaus.  And of course there are the all-important puppets created by Puppet Kitchen Productions, close to blank canvases the better to project your own vision of what different means to you.

For lovers of live theater seeking an unconventional production, A Real Boy has enough artistry to make it worthy of the $25 ticket price.  It is brought to 59E59 by Ms. Alford’s Ivy Theatre Company in association with Athena Theatre, which is known for it’s unorthodox psychologically-based dramas.  Performances run through August 27.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=293.