Photo by Bruce Silcox.
A boy is shot on a neighborhood street in the midst of the inner city. He was shot and killed even though he had a grandmother who considered him to be her holy child. Her adorning love did not protect the child in that one, tragic moment. In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre’s (“IHBT”) production of Queen reveals how the very same inextinguishable love leads the Grandmother on a sacred journey her to find the grandson who is now lost in time and space.
Playwrights Erik Ehn and Junauda Petrus delve into Grandmother myths that stretch far back in time and across many cultures. A basic tenant of this kaleidoscopic cosmology is the belief that a person’s life is equal to the person’s story. If a grandson is lost to her bodily, then the Grandmother’s quest is a search for his story that still echoes thru the Universe. Grandmothers are called to trek across a landscape of bad dreams and monsters to shore-up the Universe that shakes and rages with her sorrow.
The puppeteers (Steve Ackerman, Julie Boada, Masanari Kawsahara, and Junauda Petrus) bring a creative array of puppets and objects to life with movement and voicing. The Grandmother is a 2-foot wooden puppet worked by as many as three puppeteers controlling her head, legs and torso, making for very realistic responses and gestures. A fourth puppeteer then lends himself as a bridge to cross or mountain pass the Grandmother must traverse. In a sequence of unabashed creativity, a plain piece of wrapping paper, emphasizing the dream state of the Grandmother, is morphed into a flying bird, burning flames and other living things.
The puppets interact, objects become sacred, and landscapes are constructed out of bits and pieces as the stage action floats over the poetic monologue. This is a characteristic of theatre work that is more a ritual than a play. Playwright Erik Ehn noted he was influenced by the Catholic Masses that he attended as a child. Thus, his simple story is elaborated into a ritual of moving elements, different perspectives and iconic imagery. Sometimes narrator Laurie Carlos empowers the Grandmother with fierce vocal emotion. But at times her delivery is monotone clashing with the poetic nature of the narrative.
A quartet with music and vocalists occupies stage left, contributing ambient sound for some scenes and transitioning into wondrous soprano vocalizations that have a crystalline quality. However, the songs seem too few and scattered and are not fully integrated into the flow of the ritual.
The playing space of Queen is the IHBT proscenium, from which set designer Sam Van Tassel hangs a plain backdrop that functions as a screen for shadow puppets and the projection of hand-drawn illustrations. The stage lighting by Heidi Eckwall provides a mix of lighted and darker mood areas through which the Grandmother must find her way.
A Grandmother who lost her grandson turns out to be a force of nature that sets out to change the world. She returns with a beautiful story that brings solace to the families of all shooting victims. A story that validates the inner existence of the deceased person in the hearts of their loved ones.