This holiday season In the Heart of the Beast (HOBT) Puppet and Mask Theatre revisits a favorite tradition with their production La Befana, based on an ancient legend of the Italian Gift Giver. The show uses large and small puppets and original music to tell the story of the old woman, Befana, who goes in search of the Holy Child.
HOBT started in 1973 and was originally called Powderhorn Puppet Theater. In 1979, company member and poet Steven Linsner suggested renaming the theater In the Heart of the Beast as a metaphor. He wrote: "To be puppeteers in the Heart of the Beast... is to find ourselves in the great world Beast made of families, races, ages, sexes, classes, corporations and nations, people, (and creatures!) all different, working out a way to live together."
Originally a touring show, La Befana was the first play that HOBT peformed in their current space, the Avalon Theater, located on Lake Street by Bloomington Avenue. They converted the space from a pornography house, according to Artistic Director Sandy Spieler.
"The way we perform it is as a folk play," Spieler says. Comparing it to May Day, Spieler states that the play has a ritual aspect. While the company has performed the show many times, each year they've done it a little bit different. "Its beginning and end are always the same," she says, "but where she goes on her journey changes."
This year will be the first time in five years that the theater will not produce La Natividad, a spectacle event that utilized a number of different locations. The production involved a community choir and 100 volunteers in a play that used the Christmas story as a metaphor for the immigrant experience in our country.
Spieler says that they decided not to do La Natividad because the partners involved needed a break due to the amount of work, volunteers, and resources it took to organize it. She also wanted to share the La Befana tradition with a whole new generation of young children who have not seen it.
Still, though Befana has less direct partnership ties to the community, Spieler says that there "is a feeling of things that happen in the community that make its way into the performance."
For example, this year's production has as one of its landscapes a huge pile of trash, because the creators saw this as a growing concern. There's also a scene about bullying, and one about art bikes as a way of honoring that tradition and the life of Ethan Johnson. Johnson, who has worked with HOBT in the past, was an art bike enthusiast. He died this fall in a tragic car accident.
La Befana shows December 3 through 30 at the Avalon Theatre (1500 E. Lake St.). See www.hobt.org for details or call 612.721.2535.