by R. Pikser
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
River Theatre Company
5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14
garden of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Street and Amsterdam Avenue
Children and Seniors $7