at Open Eye Figure Theatre
through March 9
Memory can be the most unreliable of narrators, what with our need to connect the events of our lives to the story we want them to tell. But if we have a tendency to stack the deck of our recollections to serve predetermined outcomes, the textures of childhood at least lay claim to purity. It's probably the vivid sensory perception of our youth that casts things so starkly: dewy grass, a grandmother's cooking, the tang of sweat-soaked sheets after a fever dream.
Michael Sommers directs and designs Eleanor's Cabinet, inspired by the work of English author Eleanor Farjeon, and through visual and written poetry makes a case for childhood memory enduring and coloring our perception to the end of our days. The central visual metaphor is the cabinet itself, which ostensibly contains Eleanor's writings but which is the focal point of all sorts of surreal mischief along the way.
The action opens with the puppet Teufel (Nancy Seward McLean), a sinister little skull-faced madam who exhorts the human Nicodemus (Julian McFaul) to fill our titular piece of furniture before he can enjoy a boogyin' Saturday night. McFaul is wired and goofy, with some of his teeth blacked out and an overall mien of panicked servility and intermittent semi-competence.
But right away Nicodemus encounters a problem: The cabinet is locked. By now the three-piece band, led by composer Susan Haas on piano, has found its groove. Haas's compositions and incidental music are appropriately spritely and puckish. When Nicodemus laments his plight with the brief "Down in the Dumps," we get a nice little connection between the Old World puppet ambience that underpins much of the work and the genre-bending primal wail of middle-period Tom Waits.
Nicodemus eventually has to figure out a word puzzle to unlock the cabinet, the answer to which is "jumpstart her memory." That means evoking the child Eleanor (played by alternating young actresses), the adult Eleanor (McLean), and the old Eleanor (Martha Goetsch). All three move through the action as a vision of Farjeon, united in a timeless metaphor, the trio enamored with the power of the written word (at times the word "Remember" is projected handwritten on the set, and along with Nicodemus's riddle, there's an almost mystical regard for language here).
We have a brief hypnotism interlude, then the small girl Eleanor disappears into a shelf of the cabinet in a nifty bit of legerdemain. Goetsch recalls the aged Eleanor's younger days as a series of poignant equivalents to Proust's madeleines: a cherry tree, a satin slipper, and fantasy tea parties. Fill in your own long-lost loves here.
There were a fair number of children in attendance on opening night, and this is indeed a show that tickles kids with broad slapstick. Yet it also offers fleeting glances at the eternity that their parents are undoubtedly staring down. For the former, we have reference to a game called "butt butt monkey butt" (you had to be there); for the latter, there's the child's observation that "time is a snail" (staring at 40, I'll have to opt for Bob Dylan's "jet plane" metaphor. It really does move too fast).
There were a few clunky moments that first night, but this is a show with a jillion cues, and Sommers has a knack for pulling together his particular brand of sleight of hand until it becomes seamless. We get a bit heavy at the end, then segue into the rollicking tune "Absolutely Loopy." Eleanor's Cabinet makes the case that there's a time for art, a time for memory, and a time to get downright silly. You walk out feeling like a holy fool imbued with a lifetime's smells, sounds, and pictures—among other, less definable pleasures.