Banners and Cranks
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
June 24, 2011
The ancient art of cantastoria is alive and well at HERE. Cantastoria uses song and illustrations to tell a story but I won’t go too far into the history of this old form of storytelling because each performance is opened with a short cantastoria about cantastoria. Suffice to say that puppetry has some roots in cantastoria and that is why it a part of HERE’s seminal puppetry festival Dream Music Puppetry Program.
The evening I attended is made up of six short pieces created by different puppet companies. Following the cantastoria tutorial, VSA Vermont’s Awareness Theater Co. opens the evening with a rendition of Frank Zappa’s "Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow." Emily Anderson, Edward Burke, and Ian Williams recite Zappa’s lyrics while scrolling crudely drawn drawings. Zappa’s text is inherently funny and I did feel a little more aware of the dangers of yellow snow by the end.
Next is Banners and Cranks co-curator Clare Dolan doing a piece titled "Don’t Spill the Beans" accompanied by the evening’s house band The Whiskey Spitters. Dolan displays some of her nicely done acrylic paintings for this funny and very entertaining little story that is sung in turns by each member of the band. This piece is followed by Theater Oobleck doing an interpretation of Charles Beaudelaire’s poem "La Geante." Chris Schoen sings and plays guitar while Banners and Cranks co-curator Dave Buchen scrolls some well drawn charcoal drawings. Schoen’s voice may falter a bit but the emotion and power of the poem still shine through.
Next is a cool piece created and performed by Sam Wilson titled "On the Bum." Wilson uses a dozen or so of her well painted acrylic paintings while casually singing a story that is of great political and social importance. The text rings loud and clear with truth about our struggles against the system in this excellent bit of agitprop theater that the audience couldn’t resist singing along with. Wilson is well accompanied by an unnamed man on a mini banjo. After that, Jawbone Puppet Theater performs a piece titled "Sin Pais (No Country)" which is based on the song (of the same name) by the bouncy Spanish punk band La Polla Records. In true punk rock fashion Adam Ende spits the words at us while Natalya Krimgold translates. The song speaks out against nationalism. The interpretation and the illustrations here are raw and abstract.
The final piece is another one created and performed by Dolan titled "The Ballad of Jacob Apfelboeck" by Bertolt Brecht. Here again Dolan displays some more of her lovely acrylic paintings while singing the text. The story is a sad story about a young man who fails to look reality in the face.
Overall, the show is intermittently entertaining. The theme of the evening (each of the seven shows in Banners and Cranks has a theme) is phobia and fetish. I didn’t get how the theme fit into the evening. None of the pieces seemed to be about either phobias or fetishes. I think the most glaring thing that seemed to be missing from the evening which is a part of a puppet festival is puppets! For me the most entertaining part of the evening was the house band The Whiskey Spitters. They are a ragtag crew of fiddlers and pickers with a backwoods bluegrass sound. They played out the night after the last piece and I’m glad they did. They are a fun and talented group.
Cantastoria is a cool performance art. I really enjoyed a couple of the pieces, however they all moved along on pretty much the same level. None of the groups made an attempt to take it up a notch and I felt a little disappointed and unsatisfied in the end. Still the Dream Music Puppetry Program is one to New York’s very best puppet festivals. Even though this cantastoria festival within it doesn’t entirely work, Dream Music always proves to be on the forefront of puppet innovation and creativity.