Theater / Performance

Puppet Uprising Year-End Cabaret and Cheap Art Bazaar (the Rotunda, 02Dec11)

What They Say It Is:

From the Rotunda website:

Featuring experimental theater, dance and puppetry by:  idiosynCrazy productions // Sarah Lowry (Missoula Oblongata) & Beth Nixon (Ramshackle Enterprises) // The Agave Opera Company// Adelaide Windsome // Charlie Sarks // The Ragdoll Engine // Musical guest Matthew Schreiber // Snacks, local crafts and cheap art for sale!

CLAY SAYS....There were essentially 6 items on display at this particular performance, and I’m not going to get into detail about all of them.  We attended this show on a whim with no expectations beyond our general familiarity with Beth Nixon’s wonderful/demented/inspiring brand of puppetry.

The Rotunda, a West Philadelphia landmark located close to the Penn University campus, was the scene of the crime.  If you’ve never visited, the venue is a reliable artistic home for new/amateur/aspiring/offbeat aesthetic experiences of all shapes and sizes.  In the past, we’ve come to the Rotunda for hip-hop competitions and 8bit concerts, plays, shows, and a variety of not-easily-classified events.  It’s not the world’s flashiest venue, but it’s a valuable community space with a laudable willingness to showcase new art.  Winning.

There were a couple of vendors with a few pieces of homespun handcrafts on display, and a table with some snacks.  Though the event advertised a combo cabaret/bazaar, the “bazaar” aspect was not particularly extensive, but good enough for West Philly (plus there were snacks, and who doesn’t love a bag of nuts + cookies?).  We settled into our seats for a two-set show (3 performances per set).

The Rotunda, at 40th and Walnut

In general, I thought the arrangement of performances was well-managed.  Furthermore, the show definitely lived up to the ‘cabaret’ label, including pieces ranging through various genres of puppetry, avant-garde theater, dance, and short-form opera.  The first set featured Beth Nixon’s preview of an upcoming show (January 15-17 at the Rotunda), which was followed by a short puppet piece by Geppetta, and the set closed with a longer puppet-related piece entitled ‘Preparedness Eulogy’.   Of the three, I’d say my favorite was a toss-up between Nixon’s preview piece and Geppetta’s umbrella-puppet creation.  The preview was brief, comical and eerily atmospheric (especially thanks to really great accordion music), while Geppetta’s silent manipulation of a glowing, adorable monster invoked the ambivalent fear and beauty of an almost-forgotten dream.  I didn’t fall in love with the 3rd piece (Preparedness Eulogy), but perhaps my concentration was disrupted by an audience member who insisted on snapping photographs throughout the set, seemingly unconscious that the clicking of her camera was only slightly less disruptive than the bright glow of her viewscreen in a dark theater.

Between pieces, an accordionist (Matthew Schreiber) and an unnamed female vocalist entertained the audience, establishing an ultra-cool ambiance and providing a perfect segue between acts.  Hey, who doesn’t love the sound of eastern-euro-styled accordion grooves?  Nobody with any kind of good taste, that’s who.

The second set included the heavy hitters of the night: the idiosynCrazy dance troupe and the Agave Opera Company.  I won’t go into too much detail regarding idiosynCrazy’s ambitious three-man dance performance; I have a feeling Tara (as our resident dance expert) will have much wiser things to say than I could ever come up with (“they jumped around all purty-like”).  Between the larger pieces, we were treated to a brief and comical (and clearly Henson/Sesame Street-inspired) puppet show by newcomer Charlie Sarks, which reveled in absurd simplicity and provided the most laughs of the night.  Finally, the show wrapped up with a neatly stylized micro-opera by a North Philadelphia group of musicians and actors.  Taking Narcissus and Echo as their theme, the group managed to cram some excellent harp, saxophone, and singing into a 15 minute exploration of fate and mythology.  By far the ‘biggest’ piece of the evening, it was a great way to wrap up the show, and felt like the sort of experience that could be expanded into a larger experience, yet works perfectly well as a short piece.

If you’re familiar with the West Philadelphia art scene, the evening had most of the hallmarks and benefits of said scene.  The price was right ($5-10 donation) and was a great way to kick off the final month of the year.

Since Clay left this one to me, I will start my review with some comments on the second set dance portion of the performance.  Having just read “Mao’s Last Dancer”–an autobiography about a chinese ballet dancer who defected to the United States–my brain was primed to see some kinetic expression of art and beauty.  The male trio had an excellent ebb and flow to their overall performance.  I also appreciated the way that the trio, while engaged in a series of complicated dance lifts, incorporated elements of spoken word poetry regarding death and loss.  I found it to be a very touching piece on the subject of grief.  The piece featured mostly modern choreography, but I suspected that the talented dancers draw technique from ballet training.  Although there were no astounding leaps or turns, the shapes and forms created by the three dancers created a deep melancholy mood, fitting their movement-costuming and music.

I have to agree with Clay that Beth Nixon and Sarah Lowry were another strong favorite of the night.  Their preview piece from the opening set (though still in development) contained some amazing puppetry (specifically, a large lemur mask).  Beth as “Vince” was hilarious and provided some great comic relief for the night.  I am looking forward to January’s full performance at the Rotunda.  Visiting the craft bazaar between sets, I also purchased some of Ms. Nixon’s artistic postcards.  These items feature a series of variously cute and haunting still photos of her sculptures, captured in the wild of a local forest, and are capped off with witty (and somewhat demented) descriptions on the  reverse.

For more information on Beth Nixon’s many works, I’d recommend checking out her nifty website at http://www.ramshackleenterprises.net/.

Finally, the show-closing mini-opera was another well done piece.  Thankfully, this opera was not the stereotyped image of a fat lady singing, nor a squawking voice spewing Italian in soprano.  This was a very atmospheric piece (and though I’m sure Clay won’t agree)  I might be compelled to compare the mood to that of a Decemberists song….  In any case, the successful incorporation of mythology, musicians and talented singers was a pleasant surprise.  I was glad to learn that this particular company is based right here in Philadelphia.  This was there second performance piece and I can’t wait to find out about more of their shows.

Final summary: the night’s cabaret was well worth the sliding scale donation, and sure beats the heck out of sitting in front of the TV.  Viva live art!

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