The Miracle on Monroe Street
nytheatre.com review by Edward Elefterion
August 16, 2007
In The Miracle on Monroe Street, Jennifer Levine has a good little story on her hands. Unfortunately her lovingly designed puppets don't help her tell it.
Based on fact, the story is simple and told jointly by Levine and a recording of her grandmother, Pearl. Tempted by a sweet-tooth, little Sally (Pearl's sister) steals a cake from the baker. The baker chases Sally to a rooftop where both cake and Sally fall four-stories to the street below. After a brief hospital stay, Sally returns home, where, because she suffered no great harm from such a fall, the neighborhood proclaims that she is a miracle child.
The recording of her grandmother is rich with humor and charm. I genuinely liked listening to her and felt a little deflated every time the tape stopped. Levine's grandmother had a way of engaging me that I wished carried over into the rest of the piece, which felt bogged down with puppets that really didn't add much to the overall expression of the story. The way they were designed kept puppeteer Levine from interacting with them and, consequently, kept me from interacting with them.
The main characters are rod puppets which she controls from above; that is, her hand visibly holds a hook (very much like the top of a wire hanger) to which the puppet is fastened, and then she moves her hand (and the puppet) up and down to suggest walking, etc. The point being: she does not need to actually touch, interact, or transform herself or the puppet in any way, thus limiting the expressive capacity of both her puppets and her self.
There was a very successful moment of connection between Levine and a baker-puppet that exemplifies the potential power of interacting with a puppet (instead of merely using an inanimate figure as a physical representation for a character). A baker carries a cake (both are smaller than life-sized). Of course, since the baker is a puppet, Levine literally needs to lend a hand and does the lifting for/with him. Though the cooperation between the puppeteer and puppet is simple and obvious, the interaction effortlessly triggers our imagination and we are instantly involved, albeit for a moment. Unfortunately, this occurrence is rare; though I was willing and eager to participate, I was not able to engage my imagination with the events on stage. As I mentioned, I had a much easier time engaging with the recorded voice. It invited my imagination to provide what I wasn't seeing, and my imagination leapt at the task. I can still see that old woman now, although I, in fact, never laid eyes on her.
After the play, I wondered: What did Jennifer Levine hope to share with me during this 30-minute depiction of this story? What was this experience about? From her matter-of-fact style of performance, characterized by functionality and a businesslike yet gentle manner with which she handled the puppets, it seemed like she was trying to stay out of the story's way and simply let it do the talking for itself. But stories are like puppets: neither will say a word without a little help.