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The Dancing Fox: Wisdom Tales of the Middle East

                              by R. Pikser

Ralph Lee’s Mettawee Theatre Company is a mixture of puppets and actors, music and movement, all in the service of telling the story.  These particular stories about wily foxes and wilier humans, about masters of the world and payback for misers, resonate these days as much as they ever did.

As usual with Mr. Lee’s work, everything visual is outstanding.  The backdrop for the show is a seemingly random arrangement of colored sheets on clotheslines, in front of which is a rickety looking series of ramps.  Upon closer inspection, one sees that the sheets, which will be masking for puppeteers and wings for actors, are dyed in tints and shadings and that the ramps are carefully angled and quite sturdy.  The lighting for this performance was not torches, but it was basic.  The setup suggested a performance by a medieval troupe of traveling players.  This impression was heightened by the siting of the stage in the middle of the garden of St. John the Divine, with the grey stones of the synod house further in the background.  The audience did not have to stand, but was seated in folding chairs on the lawn.  The feeling of the whole was intimate.

photos by Casey Compton.

The stories begin with a tale of the ocean, and the cloth representing the sea is dyed so beautifully that, though we have all seen cloths used as water before, this time its manipulation becomes entrancing.  The power-mad Leviathan who wants homage from everyone in the world is so big that two actors are necessary to manipulate him and no frightening that one would not like to get too near to either his teeth or his gigantic eyes.  In the tale of the snake released from under a rock, the snake is a long boa, a wrap, with a head at one end, and the sheep and mule who sit in judgment on the man are just suggested with masks and a few sticks for forelegs.  Mr. Lee provides visuals, but also prods the audience to use their imaginations.  Helping the audience along are the musicians with a saxophone, an accordion, and the occasional drum. 

The theme of the evening is just desserts, some apparently justified, some cruel, and finally, in the tale of two brothers, a kind of trickery in which each tries secretly to help the other, with their good deeds balancing out.  David Hunsaker, credited as the writer, has retold these tales in a manner that helps us to apply the stories to the present day.  Why does the Leviathan need to receive homage from absolutely everyone on earth?  What would our animals say if we could hear them judge us?  Why do we betray those who have helped us?  Are people better than animals?  Will trickery always win out?  These questions seem particularly important these days and viewing them through the medium of puppets gives us space to reflect in a dispassionate manner.  And since the puppets and the visuals are so striking, they will stay with us and will provoke us to continue thinking about them and the problems. 

For this reviewer, there is one element that could be improved upon.  When Mr. Lee and his company are working with the puppets, the strength of the visual may carry us away.  But in the pieces with fewer striking props, one begins to notice that the acting is often generic and that the actors tend to rely on their puppets rather than enriching their characters through the medium of the puppets.  Jan-Peter Pedross is the exception.  Not only does he develop his movement and voice differently according to each character, each mask or prop becomes an extension of his body.  The puppet or the mask becomes more alive for the audience and so does the performer.  This technique takes a long time to develop and is a pleasure to see.

Mettawee River Theatre Company is always a visual delight and the company always leaves us with something to think about.  Its images remain inscribed in our imaginations in a way that most of us do not experience after childhood.

Mettawee River Theatre Company

September 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14

The garden of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY

$14; Children and Seniors $7