REVIEW: Winter Pageant 2010 (Redmoon Theater)

 

TV-inspired ‘Pageant 2010’ pales next to previous editions

 

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Redmoon Theater presents
  
Winter Pageant 2010
   
Created and directed by Seth Bockley
Redmoon Central, 1463 W Hubbard  (map)
Through Jan. 2   |  
Tickets: $10–22  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Redmoon Theater’s nearly annual, alternative take on an all-ages family holiday show, Winter Pageant, typically showcases the progression of the seasons and celebrates the return of spring, while avoiding religion, hackneyed holiday themes and Christmas commercialism. This year, alas, it also avoids innovation and runs short on pageantry.

A takeoff on the early-1970s TV sitcom "The Partridge Family," the show, just over an hour long, follows Rita and the Seasons, a family band consisting of Rita (Kasey Foster) and her four children, Summer (Eric Prather), Fall (Alex Knapp), Winter (Carly Ciarrocchi) and Spring (Matt Rudy, played on opening night by understudy Felicia IMG_7127Bertch). It’s 153 years after their ’70s success and the family are now all cotton-wigged, doddering geriatrics — depicted with a full complement of cheap, stereotypical jokes about dimwitted, disabled old people, from shaky Rita in  orthopedic oxfords and pastel print housedress to Summer in unzipped plaid pants to an unfocused Fall with a walker. Still the ruling matriarch of her clan, Rita receives an unexpected package one day, which proves to be a magical box of memories of the group’s heyday that temporarily restores them to youthful vigor.

Each band member then reenacts his or her personal hit. The original music by Mikhail Fiksel, with lyrics by Creator/Director Seth Bockley, takes us on a mini-tour through 1970s musical styles, with Rita’s funk, surf rock from Summer, folk-rock from Fall and Winter and bubblegum pop from Spring, the baby of the family. The songs are bouncy and the singers good — these are the best parts of the production — but the show’s creativity seems to have stopped there.

More intimate than Redmoon’s usual spectacles, this show is mainly set on a small stage with only a few props. It’s all done with artistry, but there’s little here we haven’t seen before. No marvelous new gadgets or impressive puppetry mark this year’s pageant. It features such typical Redmoon tropes as scrolling cantastoria, shadow  puppets, a few rod puppets and some ugly quilted soft toys, which carry out the cartoonish theme of the appliqued fabric backdrop. The glass-headed astronaut costume makes its inevitable appearance, accompanied by a cute space cow and the inexorable bubble machines.

DSC_0981"This year, we have been inspired by the sounds of classic rock and roll, and influenced by vintage cartoons and nostalgic T.V. shows," wrote Bockley in the program. "These forms of entertainment are a common language across generations."

Maybe so, but they’re a tired one. It’s disappointing to see Redmoon, which has produced such magical and creative performances in the past, turning to television for its inspiration, and such tiresome TV at that. Even its star, teen heartthrob David Cassidy, thought "The Partridge Family" was silly and saccharine.

If you’re willing to expose your kids or grandkids to TV-based comedy that mocks the elderly, they’ll likely have a good time. Nostalgic Baby Boomers who aren’t sensitive to digs about aging may enjoy it, too. I’m not sure what’s there for the generations in between, except amusement at the quaintness of the entertainments of their elders and reinforcement of youth’s smug conviction that they’ll never get old.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

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

Sad puppet love, high art

  
   

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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."