REVIEW: Hard Headed Heart (Blair Thomas and Co.)

Sad puppet love, high art

  
   

hard-hearted-heart-blair-thomas

         
Blair Thomas & Co. presents
    
Hard Headed Heart
   
Created by Blair Thomas
Victory Gardens, Richard Christiansen Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago (map)
Through Aug. 21  | 
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

We long ago learned that puppets aren’t just for kids. In founding Redmoon Theater 20 years ago, puppeteer Blair Thomas taught Chicago that lesson with giant puppets, keen artistry and contemporary work. Now, in his intimate, one-man show Hard Headed Heart, currently at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater, Thomas deftly schools us in historic puppetry arts while focusing on darkly romantic adult themes.

blair_thomas_credit Saverio Truglia Don’t look for Redmoonlike spectacle, Disneyesque whimsy or Muppety cute — instead, in three lyrical, loosely connected vignettes, Thomas showcases a variety of smaller format, centuries-old puppetry forms: wooden-headed hand puppets; jointed, rod marionettes; scrolling cantastoria; shadow puppets and rod puppets — all with an edge of grotesquerie. In a break with some of the traditions, Thomas, clad in a dusty black suit like a 19th-century undertaker, remains fully visible throughout, sometimes as puppeteer, sometimes as a live actor, creating an amalgam between puppetry and performance art. We’re always aware of the man — Thomas never effaces himself into a hidden operator behind the scenes.

Each of the three segments of the 75-minute show, first produced last year, has its own creative puppet set. Hard Headed Heart begins with Thomas’s lively, amusing rendition of "The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal" by Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, a lightly bawdy hand-puppet show about the courtship of the folkloric Spanish scalawag and bully Cristobal and his dubious lady love, Rosita.

At its outset, we’re treated to Thomas, in sad-faced clown makeup, playing the pompous director and the fanciful poet-author, whipping around a rotating costume as he converses with himself. Next comes a Punch and Judy-like act, with classically stylized puppets and a traditionally violent and silly love story. Thomas switches between manipulating the hand puppets, playing several musical instruments and performing in his director role in a frenetic, almost breathless one-man-band performance.

For the second act, Thomas riffs on the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral standard "St. James Infirmary." In this slow-moving piece, Thomas alternates between singing (with a vocal wail reminiscent of Cab Calloway in the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon "Snow-White"), operating rod marionettes in front of a motorized paper-scroll backdrop and playing ukelele, toy piano, drums, cymbals and what looks like a mellophone or BlairThomas-St James Infirmary_1_credit Kipling Swehla baritone bugle. With the mournful-visaged marionettes, designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock to evoke antique specimens, Thomas re-enacts the funereal love affair of the song to chillingly dramatic effect, with some particularly effective puppet dance moves that I’m sure are much harder to achieve than he makes them look.

Finally, Thomas presents Wallace Stevens’ poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in a shadow puppet show performed against a set of four backlit, rolling arts scrolls. To the music of Ben Johnston‘s String Quartet #4, Thomas dances below his moving paper images, cranking the rolls and using cut-outs, rod puppets and his hands to convey Stevens’ cryptic poetry.

This won’t be a show for everyone — those impatient with poetry or unsympathetic to largely plotless mood pieces about love gone wrong may not feel that its artistry overcomes those elements. Hard Headed Heart is for those who enjoy sad songs and art for art’s sake.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Note: Hard Headed Heart is suitable for ages 16 and up. Produced without an intermission, the show has open seating.

   
  

Part of Thomas’s performance of "St. James Infirmary" at the 2010 "Cranks and Banners" Festival.

  
  

Cab Calloway sings "St. James Infirmary" in Betty Boop’s "Snow-White."

   
   

REVIEW: My Brother’s Keeper (Black Ensemble Theater)

BET’s talented tappers pay tribute to the legendary Nicholas Brothers

 

My Brother's Keeper - CAST

 
Black Ensemble Theater, Uptown, presents
 
My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers
 
By Rueben D. Echoles
Directed by
Jackie Taylor
BE Theater, 4520 N. Beacon
(map)
Through May 16 (more info)
 
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Nicholas Brothers were, if not the best known, simply the best dance team of the 20th century. With astonishing splits, seemingly effortless leaps and fabulous footwork, the brothers tapped their way through scores of famous nightclubs, a half dozen motion pictures and performances before nine presidents of the United States s Keeper - Jessica Moore, Kylah Frye, Carrieand several crowned heads of Europe, in a career that spanned nearly seven decades.

Black Ensemble Theater’s world premiere biographical tribute, My Brother’s Keeper, follows the company’s familiar documentary/revue style, tracing the brothers from childhood to death with a straightforward narrative penned by Rueben D. Echoles.

What it lacks in dramatic tension and stirring dialogue, the show more than makes up for in beautifully executed music and dance numbers, arranged by Thomas ‘Tom Tom 84’ Washington and choreographed by Echoles. Drummer and Musical Director Robert Reddrick leads a swinging eight-piece jazz band, featuring Washington on horns, Mark Moultrup on keyboards, Herb Walker on guitar, Tracey Anita Baker on bass, Bill McFarland on trombone, Hank Ford on sax and Paul Howard on trumpet.

Echoles’ choreography streamlines famous Nicholas Brothers routines, including a brief homage to the legendary leapfrogging, stair-step splits from the 1943 film Stormy Weather. The buttery-voiced Rashawn Thompson and elastic Echoles portray Fayard and Harold Nicholas with huge talent on all levels — as actors, singers and dancers. You rarely see performances like this nowadays. While they aren’t the incomparable Nicholas Brothers — no one could be — they give us as close a re-creation as you’re likely to see.

s Keeper - Ruben Echoles, Kylah Frye, RaShawn Thompson s Keeper - RaShawn Thompson, Ruben Echoles 2
My Brother's Keeper - Dawn Mitchell My Brother's Keeper - RaShawn Thompson My Brother's Keeper - Melanie McCullough

The sons of drummer and band leader Ulysses Nicholas (a sensitive performance by Donald Barnes) and his pianist wife, Viola (sweetly played by Dawn Bless), the Nicholas boys grew up in the wings of the vaudeville stage where their parents performed, watching the likes of singers such as Big Maybelle (as whom Rhonda Preston provides a twanging solo) and dancers including Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Young Fayard is fascinated by the hoofers and soon begins choreographing his own routines. When his younger sister, Dorothy (Shakila), refuses to practice with him anymore, he turns to their little brother, who turns out to have more than what it takes.

s Keeper - Kylah Frye, RaShawn Thompson The boys became dedicated to each other and to their art, and began a professional dancing career in the 1930s, when Fayard was 18 and his younger brother 11. They continued performing together till Harold’s death in 2000.

Tapped by Duke Ellington to perform at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, the brothers were the first black performers to be allowed to mingle with club’s all-white audiences. They also got a helping hand from bandleader Cab Calloway (some nice jiving from Daryl Brooks).

Through their tremendous talent, the brothers broke other color barriers, and had an enormously successful career that took them to Hollywood and overseas. Their personal lives were stormy, however. Fayard’s marriage fell apart when his wife (Melanie McCullough) tired of playing second fiddle to his brother, his dancing and — not mentioned in this show — his philandering. Harold married actress Dorothy Dandridge (an evocative performance by Kylah Williams), but the marriage, troubled from the outset, foundered after their daughter was born with brain damage.

The cast also feature the talents of Allison McCorkle,Carrie, Jessica Moore, Christopher Kudiacz, Cory Wright and Michael Bartlett who ably impersonates Bojangles Robinson and Michael Jackson.

My Brother’s Keeper provides a wonderful look back at what entertainment used to be.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

 

 

The Nicholas Brothers with Cab Calloway in Stormy Weather, 1943 

 

The Nicholas Brothers with Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, 1977