ALL WEATHER BALLADS Well Worth Seeing
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by Brent Englar
As part of Questfest 2010, an international festival dedicated to visual theatre (that is, theatre organized around movement rather than text), Baltimore’s Theatre Project is hosting three master puppeteers from the acclaimed Sandglass Theater in Vermont. Their contribution to Questfest, All Weather Ballads, blends music, puppetry, and (to quote from the company’s press release) “elemental cursing” to evoke scenes of life, both comic and tragic, in America’s rural northeast.
Sandglass Theater was founded over twenty years ago by two immigrants from Germany, Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass, whose theatrical vision sees puppets as “a means of integrating, of pulling back pieces torn apart from each other…. In dancing with the puppet, we are dancing with our more secret side.” Moving through the five scenes that comprise All Weather Ballads, one can sense this vision shaping the story, which begins in very concrete settings—a row of ice shanties on a frozen lake, a muddy mountain road—and proceeds to increasingly metaphorical realms: an orchard containing one apple “sweeter than the rest”; moonlit rooftops, beneath which “are the last repository of memories and secrets”; a woodpile manned by an aging couple who measure their lives together in logs chopped for kindling.
Each scene is beautifully imagined, filled with moments that are by turns whimsical, wistful, and at times profoundly moving. The puppets, though no larger than their masters’ forearms (many are quite smaller), are wondrously detailed, supple at the joints, and manipulated by the Basses with great sensitivity to the slightest gestures. The animals are particularly inspired. Tiny fish shimmer through a gauzy fabric toward tinier fishing rods, which hungrily snap them up. A crow swoops from the sky to snatch a baseball cap from a man’s head, and a snorting pig gobbles up ripe, red apples.
Though the Basses punctuate the action with a wide range of sounds (including the aforementioned cursing, used sparingly and to charming effect), most of the text is sung. Company member Nick Keil serves as a kind of narrator, strumming an acoustic guitar, pumping an accordion, and singing in a pleasant, folky voice. Composer Keith Murphy contributes an unobtrusively haunting score, and Mr. Bass’s lyrics make witty use of rhyme. Jerry Stockman’s atmospheric lighting design takes its cue from the show’s title, effortlessly evoking the passage of time through all kinds of weather.
For all the show’s charms, I took greater pleasure in the earlier, more literal scenes. The later ballads, which seem to trace the arc of a relationship between a man and a woman, are a bit confusing, and though Theatre Project is careful not to seat people too far from the stage, certain details get lost in the intimate setting. It remains unclear to me, for example, why the couple’s initial meeting results in puppet “nudity,” or how a pig manages to get into an attic and knock over a wood stove.
If such questions seem jarring, all I can suggest is to see the show and try to answer them for yourself. Perhaps you’ll decide the answers are of no consequence whatsoever. Regardless, on one point I’m sure we’ll agree: All Weather Ballads is a magical theatrical experience, not to be missed.
All Weather Ballads is playing at Baltimore’s Theatre Project, located at 45 West Preston Street, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 P.M. and Sundays at 3 P.M., through March 14. Tickets are $10-$20. For more information, call 410-752-8558 or go to www.theatreproject.org. To learn more about Questfest 2010, go to www.questfest.org.