nytheatre.com review by Amber Gallery
September 7, 2008
With a name like Nanabozho and the knowledge that his story has been passed down and translated from the Native American Winnebago tribe, one might think twice about seeing a performance of his journeys. Add in the outdoor performance space and, well, puppets to the mix, and one may choose to go with something a bit more conventional. Their loss. Ralph Lee's Nanabozho is a delight in all aspects.
Nanabozho is a tale drawn from Winnebago legend about the creation of the world. It chronicles the adventures of its title character, a hare, who is summoned from the safety of his Grandmother's home by his long lost Grandfather. His Grandfather needs him to retrieve something that has been stolen by a family of frog demons who live across the river. The somewhat dimwitted Nanabozho must overcome some obstacles along the way, outsmart the frog demons, and learn how to deal with the newfound power his Grandfather gives him. The story is essentially a musical fairy tale. It has humor and touching moments with some life lessons thrown in for good measure.
Nanabozho is a mixture of actor-controlled puppets and elaborate costumes with masks. Lee's puppets and designer Casey Compton's costumes clearly take centerstage here. Gasps, cooing and laughter ensued with the reveal of each new character: a family of frogs, a family of beavers, and a gigantic (approximately 15 feet tall) Grandmother—controlled beautifully by four actors, and voiced by two of them—just to name a few.
Lee's masks and puppets are exquisitely designed. The faces are eerily expressive and seem to change with the inflection and physicality incorporated by the acting company. Casey Compton's costumes are elaborate in design and just gorgeous—I found myself hypnotized by the line of beautiful dancing women Nanabozho calls forth with his newfound powers.
Credit must be given to all six company actors. Whether they are costumed and masked or controlling a puppet, they embody their characters with 110% commitment. The actor playing Nanabozho is the only one not masked and his physical acting is top-notch. He makes Nanabozho an endearing and sympathetic lead character. The company does it all—sings, dances, manipulates the puppets, and brings the already impressive costumes to life.
An enchanting evening will be had by anyone who takes the chance on this little show. A summer night in a lush green space with audience members either camped out on blankets or in regular chairs. A live percussionist and a bass player accompany the action on stage with music and charming sound effects. The actors address the audience and the musicians from time to time. The mood is homey and light with a touch of magic in the air.
Lee's Mettawee River Theatre Company has been around since the 1970s and the audience seemed to be partly comprised of some returning fans of Lee's work. This comes as no surprise given the quality of the show. This particular production had been first produced almost 30 years ago. The company tours all over the Northeast, mostly in outdoor venues. There is only one more weekend to see it in New York City and I highly recommend it.