Hazel in Descent
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
May 20, 2009
It's an often-accepted truism that unequal relationships can be problematic, and Hazel in Descent begins with a relationship that is dramatically unequal. Hazel leads a safe and comfortable life in a bungalow on the edge of a supposedly enchanted forest, spending her time tending to her plants and her boyfriend Henry, a tiny man who she keeps in a cookie tin next to a glass case where she keeps her heart. But one day Henry starts to grow, and soon he has grown larger than Hazel and bounded off to greener pastures, leaving Hazel without a voice and alone, except for her stuffed monkey that has now sprung to life.
Thus begins Hazel in Descent, Derya Derman's endlessly imaginative allegorical fairytale about being abandoned by the one you love. In this hour-length one-act Derman has created a magical world worthy of Lewis Carroll in which Hazel and her not-always-helpful monkey sidekick meet all sorts of fantastical creations as she travels through the stages of her own despair, self-judgment, resentment, and redemption. Combining text, movement, sound, and puppets both large and small, Hazel in Descent is a play teeming with talent and creativity in every aspect of this low-tech but highly inventive production.
Take for example Hazel's first stop—a bed "of despair" which springs surprisingly to life in a tangle of groping limbs amid a series of half-finished paintings inhabited by live actors who warn of the danger of being "painted in" by your self-pity. Then there are the three apothecaries—a gorgon-like triad of puppets who promise to turn Hazel into a new person that can compete with the rival of Henry's affections, an "Enormous Woman" who is rumored to play 37 instruments, speak 59 languages, and have legs up to her neck. Along every step of Hazel's journey, the ingenuity and creativity of the production keeps pace with Derman's ingenious and creative script.
Much of the designing credit goes to Derman herself, who created the memorable costumes and puppets, but all of the design elements work well; in particular Ken Urbina's catchy electronic score manages to stand out even amidst the visual feast that this show presents. Still, Hazel in Descent doesn't rely solely on its impressive design elements. Derman and director Reshmi Hazra have created a well-balanced show which uses simple staging and movement techniques to just as much effect, and they have helped themselves in no small measure by assembling a skilled ensemble of performers and puppeteers.
Derman as Hazel is the expressive Mary Pickford-style silent heroine at the center, and she has penned a role for herself that is almost completely—and very appropriately—reactive, allowing her cohorts to shine as the more flamboyant characters that Hazel and her feisty monkey—played with great mischief by Elizabeth Romanski—encounter along the way. It's a generous and wise choice, and one that supports and does credit to the story that is being told as well as to the other performers, such as Sophia Bushong as the wise old parrot Oma and Karina Richardson as the languid Bed of Despair, who bring Derman's rich universe to life.
And it's a story—in spite of its fairy tale milieu—that isn't just trite fluff. For a one-act filled with such a lighthearted style and delightful creations, Hazel in Descent is a work of surprising psychological depth and emotional heft. Derman uses her allegories to ask some poignant questions as to how much Hazel's predicament is a product of her own creation, and how much the way she handles it is her own responsibility within her control. What emerges when Hazel's descent is done is not just a stylistic triumph, but also a beautiful and thoughtful piece on self acceptance, overcoming grief, and moving forward.