Around The Town

Small Acts of Daring Invention

By: Alix Cohen

May 8, 2024: Windows are so filthy, only shadows show beyond. Everything inside is concealed by dirty drop cloths. There’s an old shopping cart piled high with – what? Only a desk lamp, some children’s chairs and diminutive table remain uncovered. Paper debris blankets a part of the linoleum floor. There’s a low hum. A woman tenuously enters. She wears a scarf, plastic rain hat, soiled trench coat over a blue nightgown and a single pink slipper. Overhead lights buzz and flicker. One comes on.

By: Alix Cohen

May 8, 2024: Windows are so filthy, only shadows show beyond. Everything inside is concealed by dirty drop cloths. There’s an old shopping cart piled high with – what? Only a desk lamp, some children’s chairs and diminutive table remain uncovered. Paper debris blankets a part of the linoleum floor. There’s a low hum. A woman tenuously enters. She wears a scarf, plastic rain hat, soiled trench coat over a blue nightgown and a single pink slipper. Overhead lights buzz and flicker. One comes on.

Is she taking refuge from something cataclysmic, suffering from dementia, homeless? As if in a trance, the heroine explores her surroundings in fits and starts. She appears to be without bearings. Suddenly the papers rise and float – without losing their tossed configuration. Despite only flutter sounds, audience gasps. We hear light, tiptoeing piano. The woman finds and greedily samples a bag of birdseed, dried cat meal. (There are bird and cat sounds – she shares.) Food!

Amanda Card, Andrew Murdock, Takemi Kitamura, Simon Catillon, Tracy Weller, Ariel Lauryn

Atmosphere is riveting, ominous, dreamlike. Is the heroine asleep? Is she alive? Objects are disinterred. Among them a large grey teddy bear, a slightly smaller brown teddy bear and a naked rag doll (called Edie by the writer) missing an arm. Left by her in a heap, they come alive by way of puppeteers – invisible to the protagonist, with no attempt to hide from us. At first the toys freeze whenever she turns toward them. Eventually the woman sees – and accepts.

Tracy Weller

Artful puppets look like battered heirlooms, faces and floppy limbs speak of unique character and better times. The three seem sympathetic, working silently as a team to soften traumatic experience. They convey the impression of facial expressions. The grey bear conducts classical music. The brown bear finds a slide projector – showing images of frayed memories. Furniture is gradually exposed. We guess at the room’s previous use.

Everything elicits wonder when it has no history. The heroine wanders, picking things up, putting them down. Momentary awareness passes. Toys try to distract, help, entertain, comfort. They’re kind, purposeful. She bends towards the warmth. With a change in attire, mood lifts. “We” are a mirror, reflecting at first pleasure, then despair. Still, something eventually clicks. There’s not even an errant cough from audience. The scenario mesmerizes with music, animal sounds, and quiet vocal emissions of feeling. There are no words. Stillness and anticipation pervade.

Takemi Kitamura, Andrew Murdock, Ariel Lauryn, Simon Catillon, Tracy Weller

Playwright Tracy Weller has created an alternate reality rife with questions. She combines foreboding and confusion with tender playfulness we don’t see coming and an ambiguous, yet transcendent ending. 

Weller has experience with the kind of fugue state she presents. Her father had dementia. The artist herself went through a major spinal operation during which time she couldn’t walk, write or even hold a book, suffering through a year of recovery. She believes in porous reality, concocting stories “without too many brushstrokes,” leaving audience to project into space for which she secretly holds her own ideas. In conversation with the soft spoken, articulate writer, I learn that the paper configuration is thought of as a “tree” and that the stuffed frog is a toy belonging to her young son who wanted to participate. The playwright/actor manifests a woman without moorings. Performance is graceful, credible, transfixing.

‘A disconcerting, lovely and skillfully produced piece full of surprises and wonderful visuals.

Director Kristjan Thor has a splendid sense of space, time, and movement. He allows mercurial emotion to show and affect, creating relationships by dint of deferential persistence and evolution. Memory lays like moss beneath.

Spencer Lott of Simple Mischief is puppet designer/maker/director. He read The Lonely Doll when they got the commission, not to copy but to garner intention and eccentricities. The three characters were created from scratch to look like well loved, vintage toys, though with hidden handles for manipulation purposes. Noses and bottoms of paws are worn down as if hugged and played with over time. Heat guns and paint, like make-up, were additionally used to age. A childhood doll still owned by Weller provided the face model. Her eyes unusually look to one side evoking mischief. Proportions of the three were trial and error with the size of a theater in the mix. The magic of personality is a shop secret.

Scenic design (Christopher and Justin Swader) is so evocative, one can almost smell mold and sense dust. Time hangs over the entire stage like another drop cloth. Revealed furniture presents a cohesive history. The set has both presence and temperament. Weller tells me she writes the impossible, then posits it as a challenge to collaborators. Props by Patricia Marjorie, often anachronistic, seem to belong where they are. Love the frog.

The heroine’s apparel (Natalie Loveland) is well worn and likely pungent. Layers of headgear and falling, knee-high hose are fine touches. Even the character feels appalled when she’s suddenly aware of her appearance. A change in look fits the parameters of the story. Emergence of make-up works subtly.

Simon Catillon, Tracy Weller, Ariel Lauryn, Amanda Card, Andrew Murdock, Takemi Kitamura

Projections (Yana Biryukova) never overwhelm. Fewer textures might serve – these often look like filler, less as if ephemeral recollection. Lighting (Daisy Long) breathes with the room.

A great range of music and sound (Phil Carluzzo) haunts without giving anything away. It’s so apt and well integrated, sometimes one doesn’t hear it. 

Ten year old company Mason Holdings (after the jar) is “known for creating intimate, experiential theater inspired by the unseen and unheard.” Small Aspects is inspired by the life and work of Dare Wright, author of The Lonely Doll children’s book series with which I’m unfamiliar – but have now ordered. Wright illustrated her award winning stories with photographs of her characters, a doll and two teddy bears. This is not that story, but sparks do travel.

Photos by Maria Baranova
opening: Tracy Weller

Mason Holdings presents
Small Acts of Daring Invention
Conceived/Written by/Starring Tracy Weller
Director- Kristjan Thor

HERE  145 Sixth Avenue
May 8-June 1, 2024