SHE CREATURESby Sarah Saltwick
Nouveau 47 Theatre
Directed by Tom Parr IV and Matthew Tomlanovich
Scenic Design by Scott Osborne
Lighting, Costume, Props Design by N47 Ensemble and the Cast of She Creatures
Danielle Pickard as Bianca, Female Villager Puppeteer, Cecilia, Helen, Hope
Hilary Couch as Pandora
Sherry Hopkins as Amelia, Dahlia, Marilyn, Medusa
Ginger Goldman as Juno, Marilyn, Seal Skin, Aixa, Emma
Ben Bryant as Jason, Male Villager Puppeteer, Allen, Greg
Reviewed Performance: 3/6/2013
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Plays that are non-linear and "weird" often take a bigger dose of Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief." While many playgoers find these shows a welcome relief from paint-by-the-numbers story- telling, and are grateful for a chance to stretch the imagination and gleefully follow the tapestry of images being woven by the playwright, others do not. For what I suspect is a pretty large majority, this kind of show is a pain in the ass. Why do you think sitcoms are so popular and "think pieces" rarely get produced?
Even the Dallas Theater Center is doing The Odd Couple. On a late episode of "Smash", while everyone agreed that the new script for the Marilyn musical was "brilliant" and one of "the best ever", there was also general agreement that it wouldn't sell, pointing to Follies and other musicals that were just too cerebral or difficult.
Not that there's anything wrong with that! A good evening's entertainment with lots of laughs, musical numbers and spectacle is not to be dismissed as trash, only appealing to the great unwashed. We can all appreciate a well-done production of that kind of theater. BUT, it takes a special kind of producing group to keep putting the new and unusual out there, and thank goodness, Nouveau 47 is one of those.
Following their mission statement to produce new plays, close on the heels of their staging of the new musical On the Eve by local band Home by Hovercraft (subsequently picked up by Theatre 3 for their new season), and "believe(ing) in the alchemy of audience and artist", Nouveau 47 is currently presenting She Creatures by Sarah Saltwick. This is a play that received an earlier staged reading by the company and is now being presented in a full production
Ms. Saltwick is a graduate of Hampshire College and is a playwriting and fiction Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin. She has been a finalist for the Heideman Award and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and was nominated twice by the Austin Critics Table for Best New Play. She's written plays inspired by giant rabbits, Texas, guacamole, Dolly Parton and more. Publicity for She Creatures describes the play as being about "unicorns, shapeshifters, a dragon, and a woman with a very important box." (ahem). "She Creatures explores the power of myth and the shaping of female identity." A description like this will have some jumping at a chance to experience something different, and others jumping as far away as possible.
That's too bad, because if you are willing to let the evening just wash over you and allow yourself to absorb the sounds and sights and ideas as they come rolling in, you'll probably find this show an exciting and thought-provoking experience. For those who love being challenged and want to discuss its meaning after the show over coffee or a drink, there's plenty here to be discussed. In fact, like many new playwrights, Ms Saltwick loads her script for She Creatures with ideas and questions, and while all of them are fascinating, there are perhaps too many for just one evening. I think it would take several viewings to appreciate all the paths and poetic word play the evening sets forth. There are images of fire, "fire is a hungry beast," "not the pretty kind of fire", of food (there's guacamole), lipstick, mirrors, a ring, morphing beasts, and most of all, of boxes, like riddles, filled with questions and possibilities and maybe some answers. Perhaps greater focus on one specific idea or purpose would make the show more accessible to a larger audience. It's an evening filled with images and words both exciting and puzzling and rests on, and is surrounded by, marvelous sound, all created by the human voices of the cast both onstage and off.
The evening begins with these primitive sounding voices humming, "ahhing", blending harmoniously and in beautiful dissonance to a rising crescendo of sound backed by what sounds like a human heart beat. It's a stunning opening. The use of the voices continues with more offstage and onstage sound effects, and in a memorable scene early in the evening, an echo effect that is brilliantly right for the moment. Throughout the play, the use of the human voice, not just in the sounds of the words, but in the support given to the action by the music of the other voices, is a superb use of the natural and otherworldly at the same time.
The scenic design for the production is by Scott Osborne, and is triumph. In speaking with Mr. Osborne, he said that much of it developed organically during the rehearsal process as need arose. The space is small but Scott and his crew have filled it with platforms, ramps and boxes. Dozens of boxes! Boxes of every shape and size are used to construct walls, line pathways and present wonderful hiding places for Pandora's curiosity to explore. Also used are suitcases and containers of every imaginable kind. All are painted tan, heavily splattered and textured and the floor space in the center is covered in what looks like straw, dead grass or shredded paper. Packing shreds? The metaphor of the possibilities of Pandora's box is carried to a glorious excess that works perfectly for this production. Boxes, riddles, possibilities, choices, all are explored as the evening progresses. The audience is seated primarily in one section, though there are cushions and places all around, even on the set itself for any overflow.
Hillary Couch is Pandora and we see her birth (Eve?) at the beginning as she is pulled from the mud and slowly learns to speak and move and become aware of her surroundings. It reminded me of the opening scene of Frankenstein recently performed by Benjamin Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, broadcast from London's National Theater. The newly formed creature exploring and discovering who I am, what this body is and what it can do and where I am and what it all means. Ms. Couch never leaves the stage and is the catalyst or everywoman that experiences all the various stages of a woman's life as presented by the other members of the cast. She is lovely and fluid and manages to make the early speeches, mainly composed of disconnected sounds, words and phrases, perfectly believable. She grows before our eyes as the evening progresses. Her final moments as she discovers hope as the final object in the box, "the thing with wings", are heartfelt and uplifting.
Danielle Pickard is Bianca, Female Villager Puppeteer, Cecilia, Helen and Hope. Throughout, she gives a strong and well-delivered performance, culminating in a riveting monologue as she prepares guacamole. Yes, guacamole! "Eat all the avocados you can," she tells us, "they are not plentiful." Does the pit of the avocado represent the secret? The journey of the guac itself, as it is made and consumed, seem to represent our journey in searching through the riddle and striving to find an answer. Later, as another character, she says that she is "more afraid of the journey" than what may be found. She brings a strong and confident presence to each role, even the female puppet!
Amelia, Dahlia, Marilyn, and Medusa are played by Sherry Hopkins, who brings an earthiness to her characters not necessarily found in the other women, and it adds a necessary dimension to this tale of all women. I really like her Medusa, at once terrifying and pitiful, yearning and threatening at the same time. All of her characters are brought to fully realized life.
Ginger Goldman is Juno, Marilyn, Seal Skin, Aixa and Emma. Her characters are the spice, the "ginger" if you will, in the story and she delivers each of them with a full bite, aware of their purpose in the moment. She gets the final monologue, delivered directly to the audience about riddles - about paying attention to those riddles, listening to each word for clues - and maybe even a joke or two, even while you may not find an answer. She also seems to tell us to be alert yet unafraid of the changes in our lives and not to shrink from asking the important questions.
Ben Bryant is Jason, Male Villager Puppeteer, Allen and Greg. Ben is the everyman in this everywoman tale, and he plays each character completely "there" and latched into the moment. His Male Villager puppet is delightful and all of his characters come across as real people. While he is not present on stage as much as the women, when he is, he manages to make his presence felt and necessary.
All of the actors speak the playwright's words beautifully and to full effect. There are lots of lists in their speeches and non-sequiturs and lots of ideas and poetic images. These are not easy to deliver in a relaxed and natural-sounding manner, and yet each of these talented actors does just that. It makes the evening what it is, an evening of words and sounds, ideas, questions and insights.
Co-Directors Tom Parr IV and Matt Tomlanovich have created a magical and challenging evening of theater. They have taken what could have been a difficult script and illuminated it with movement and visuals that all somehow seem to come together in a unified whole: primitive, evolving, sophisticated and questioning all at once. The script is wide open to interpretation, and I suspect when it is performed elsewhere the production will be quite different, but the approach taken by Misters Parr and Tomlanovich seems particularly suited to their vision and the vision of the playwright.
This is a dense, challenging play that asks much of its audience and offers great rewards. Take the opportunity to see this show even if you might not regularly attend this type of event and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes more than jokes, music and spectacle can be deeply rewarding. The music and the spectacle are certainly here (and even some jokes!) and the costumes, props, and sparse but powerful lighting provided by the Nouveau 47 crew and the actors, combine for an unforgettable evening that will leave you looking for answers, even while feeling strangely fulfilled and seeking out your own riddles.
Magnolia Lounge, 1121 First Ave. Dallas, TX 75210
Runs through March 17th
Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, and Sunday, March 17th at 8:00 pm
Ticket prices are $15.00-$20.00
For tickets and information go to www.nouveau47.com or call 214-810-3605