Hat and Feet

Mad hatters and dancing words mark the end of 3 legged race

When Kira Obolensky's Quick Silver closes on November 2--it's currently running in repertory with Laurie Carlos's Marion's Terrible Time of Joy--it will be the final bow of seven-year-old experimental theater company 3 Legged Race. The quirky fable, presented in partnership with the Playwrights' Center, is also a world premiere both in the standard sense and in that it marks the playwright's first venture into puppetry.

Obolensky has designed and built the show's puppets in collaboration with her husband, sculptor Irve Dell. The beautiful and beautifully ugly figures have been crafted from clay, wood, rubber, what have you. The body of the town doctor, who measures his patients' health but can't make them better, is fittingly made out of wooden rulers. Actors Charles Schuminski, Katie Kaufmann, and Brent Doyle alternate between portraying flesh-and-blood characters and vivifying the puppets with childlike whimsy and an array of cartoon-like voices, highlighted by the garbled growl Doyle lends to a visiting reporter. As with the best puppetry, there's a spirit of fantasy and magic to the play, although the work requires no real virtuosity from the puppeteers. The actors at times guide the puppets through the air like they're recreating a Marc Chagall painting. A long petition cranks out of the chest of one puppet, while another watches his heart flee from his refrigerator torso.

The play is set during the Great Depression in a small town known as the "hat-making capital of the world." While much of the nation starves, the town ekes by. But there's a pesky trade-off: The burg's relative economic vigor is accompanied by its poisoned physical health. The hat factory oozes contaminants, turning the town's river red and the workers' lungs black. "We can't live on such strange air," says one character in what becomes the play's poetic refrain.

Playwright Kira Obolensky and sculptor husband Irve Dell confer with a cast member
David Sherman
Playwright Kira Obolensky and sculptor husband Irve Dell confer with a cast member

Quick Silver, directed by Obolensky with Bonnie Shock, can be a touch precious, especially in the lyrics to its handful of art songs, and in some of its winsome linguistic fancies (Zaworski, we are told, "owns the hat factory that makes the hats.") More frequently, however, it's brimming [note to editor: please pay me extra for this subtle hat pun. Editor's reply: Good luck passing the cap.] with delightfully silly turns of phrase, such as when the hat tycoon recounts his early struggles as an Irish immigrant. "On more than one occasion," he says in a voice (courtesy of Schuminski) that's something like Deputy Dog, "I was the beneficiary of a wad of spittle." Here's hoping Quick Silver benefits from a showering of a more encouraging nature.

Though the above quote might not indicate it, Quick Silver is marked by an economy of language, which contrasts with Laurie Carlos's Marion's Terrible Time of Joy, the other play in this pairing of new works by local writers. Here, words come in torrents, and to catch them one needs a special facility for multitasking. Choreographed by Carlos and Ananya Chatterjea (who performs along with Carlos, and Marilyn Amaral), designed by artist Chamindika Wanduragala, and featuring music from the great alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, the show is a truly multidisciplinary work from an artist known for blurring form and genre.

The dances take inspiration from Chatterjea's native India as well as from modern dance, African dance, and jazz. Speeches are often accompanied by movements and chants that prod the soloist like an insistent rhythm section. Story lines intersect and splinter as the play elliptically, painfully, and wistfully explores the deep friendships between three women. Monkey (Carlos) spends much of her time reminiscing about her bohemian glory days in New York City during the '60s and '70s, and the show strongly recalls that era. It has no explicit setting. Instead, three cooking areas adorn the stage, and the feel is that of a deep conversation enjoyed while preparing an elaborate meal.

The text is something of a puzzle--and like cooking, a bit dull on occasion--but a warm spirit of kinship permeates the proceedings. When the play's myriad styles meet, Marion has the contrapuntal energy of a free jazz band or a stove top loaded with pots, pans, and teapots.

 
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