Room to Panic
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
October 4, 2008
I have never seen puppets so big. A giant mama marionette is revealed and we see that in her lap she has a small boy. Then the boy moves and we realize that the tiny child is in fact a grown actor. It is breathtaking. The multimedia Room to Panic is a production of tremendous magnitude and extraordinary vision. What is sometimes misses, though, is sufficient reasoning for and elaboration of its creative feats.
With puppets, projections, dance, music, song, text, and shadows, Room to Panic is about the sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary immigrant experience. It does not tell us about this; it allows us to feel the wonderment, chaos, and confusion of leaving your home and setting up somewhere new.
The puppets are breathtaking, primarily for their great stature. However the largest puppets do not have much mobility and mostly just wiggle around and swat with giant paw-like hands. In one scene, three giant suited men of different skin colors pass a large plastic globe among themselves. In my mind, they represented the leaders of countries and the blasé way they deal with world politics. I wish this segment, and really most of the segments of the play, had delved deeper into this. I drew this conclusion as soon as I saw the puppets with the globe and it did not grow or change based on their actions.
Room to Panic is a celebration of diversity and this is reflected in its large cast, its use of mediums, and its hodgepodge, non-linear structure. It is a brave show that tries a lot of different things. It is only natural that the elements will reach varying levels of success. The choreography, by creator/director/performer/puppet, set, lighting designer Federico Restrepo, is acrobatic, gripping, and full of emotion. Restrepo's "body puppets" are absolutely beautiful. My favorite moment of the show was when Restrepo peeled off a puppet of himself and danced with his former self. The projections meant less to me, they felt mostly like what you would find if you did a Google image search, and lacked the creativity found in the puppets and choreography. The ever-present musical score, composed by Elizabeth Swados and performed by a live band, is fine on its own, but when coupled with lyrics taken from Elias Khoury's novel Gate of Sun, it becomes redundant, uninteresting, and verges on white noise.
Throughout the piece, we see Restrepo as an immigrant on a tiny bicycle. We also run into three immigrants with a tent. Sometimes they are together, sometimes alone. There is also a "Memory Box" puppet, resembling a large ear, that cycles around the stage and speaks the text (also from Khoury). The lack of a single cohesive throughline, however, makes it difficult to become completely captivated by this world. Instead, it is like walking through a museum and seeing many new and different pieces, some that leave no impact and others that conjure up many thoughts.