La Divina Caricatura
THE NEW YORK TIMES
‘Man’s Best Friend’ Takes on a New Meaning
“La Divina Caricatura” at La MaMa
By LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
Published: December 19, 2013
She has floppy ears, eyes of exquisite sadness and an operatic tendency toward ecstasy, anguish and other big emotions. Leave her alone in a thunderstorm, and she may fall into despair.
She is a dog named Rose, and her Dear John letter to the man she loved is the battered heart of Lee Breuer’s dark, joyous and utterly splendid musical fantasia “La Divina Caricatura, Part 1, The Shaggy Dog,” at La MaMa, in a co-presentation with St. Ann’s Warehouse.
An East Village tale told in a subway, it’s a doomed cross-species romance inspired by “The Divine Comedy,” but Mr. Breuer uses Dante more as catalyst than template. The strongest classical link is to Japanese theater’s Bunraku.
Played on multiple stages with live actors, glorious singers and a buoyant band that shifts nimbly from doo-wop to country, gospel to cha-cha (the original music is by Lincoln Schleifer), the multimedia production is, at its core, puppet theater. Rose and John, a grizzled filmmaker in huarache sandals, are puppets, each operated by a supple, stealthy team of three.
But this is puppet theater for adventurous souls. Mabou Mines, the boundary-pushing downtown ensemble Mr. Breuer helped found four decades ago, is one of the show’s producers, but “La Divina” is not to be mistaken for “Peter and Wendy,” the company’s child-friendly hit. This is one of its more niche affairs.
A partial list of reasons it’s best not to bring the kiddies: sizable puppet penises, both human and canine; dog-puppet-on-man-puppet fellatio; puppet masturbation. This is a love story, and sex is involved.
Rose, designed by Julie Archer and voiced by Bernardine Mitchell in a virtuoso performance, veers between hell and earthly paradise in flashbacks to her life with John.
Going for a walk with him on Alison Yerxa’s revolving, multi-ringed set, Rose bounds and leaps, floating on bliss. But John, like most objects of obsession, is undeserving of adoration. In her martyrdom, Rose is nailed to a cross, her suffering an aria.
Mr. Breuer, who turns 77 in January, has been working for years on “La Divina,” the first part of a projected trilogy. Some of its ideas and characters, including Rose, and many of its artists — including Ms. Mitchell and fellow actors Karen Kandel and Maude Mitchell — have been integral to previous Breuer works.
Familiarity with this history adds texture, but it’s no more necessary to appreciate the sprawling beauty of “La Divina” than an immersion in Dante would be.
As the performance begins, a man (Paul Kandel) in a subway worker’s reflective vest addresses the audience members as if they were riders.
“If you see something unusual,” he intones in a comically sinister voice, “don’t keep it to yourself.”
“La Divina” is indeed unusual: strange, singular, perfectly self-contained and so wondrous that it may leave you in a daze. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
“La Divina Caricatura” continues through Sunday at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, 74A East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-475-7710, lamama.org.
A version of this review appears in print on December 20, 2013, on page C3 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Man’s Best Friend’ Takes On a New Meaning.
“I was so taken with the style of it—Bunraku puppets meets soul music meets Breuer’s imagination—that I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he comes up with in the end. I have never gotten over his historic “Gospel at Colonus”; I saw it in 1985 and Breuer is still working in the unique style he exhibited there, which I would call crowded classicism. He loves the emotional energy that comes from his crowded stage pictures, where, nevertheless, you can feel every thought, and every performer’s dedication.”
Hilton Als – The New Yorker
Broad Street Review
‘La Divina Caricatura’
A dogs search for meaning
December 21, 2013
Usually, epics are collective cultural forms that relate elaborate heroic adventures or embody national or religious myths. Think Odysseus or Beowulf. Imagine fantastic settings, supernatural beings, fearsome fate-dealing gods and questing humans who struggle for divine redemption and transcendent knowledge.
Classical epics– like the Hindu Mahabarata– contain as much philosophical debate and theological commentary as they do gory battle scenes and occasional comic asides. It takes a civilization to sustain epics— which, in traditional societies, are sung and acted, danced and represented in small and large scale theatrical productions with live actors, puppets, shadow plays, magic tricks and imagery drawn from every strata of society. Epics are beloved, enduring and cosmic, and they give meaning to human life. Like dogs.
Or, so you will find out, since Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura, Part 1, a two-and-a-half-hour multi-media music-driven puppet extravaganza is an epic. More precisely, I would call it an Epic Americana, featuring a dog with an addiction to a bad master and a longing for fame who spirals into the depths of popular cultural despair and unexpected spiritual teachings that lead her to grapple with the meaning of love, sex, gender, longing, transformation and species-specific behavior.
Here is the story that Breuer— writer/director and founder of the legendary Mabou Mines theater company— has been doggedly writing for decades: Rose, a dog, meets John, a wannabe artist filmmaker, in a city park and falls in love him. He takes her home and seems to care but then mistreats her badly. In revenge, Rose writes a “Dear John” letter, and, later, as therapy (while being treated at the Institute for the Science of Soul in Cheesequake, New Jersey), she laments, lambasts, excoriates and attempts to exorcise John for his duplicity, ineptitude and feckless engagement with life.
From Rose’s perspective, dogs are “an image in a mirror of a master’s mind/We are the lawful wedded species of the human race.” Rose realizes, with double Hegelian dialectical twists, that she is both a concept and a slave to John, her master. Yet, by nature, she can’t help herself, and she’s addicted to love, canine loyalty and self-deception. Love, as Rose whines, is vain and causes pain.
This tale is staged on a spectacluar theater filling set (designed by Alison Yerxa) with a live five-piece band, a chorus of five male and three female singers (The Poppers and The Wild Women), several narrators, ten Bunraku style puppets and dozens of costumed puppeteers, two revolving “turntables” (so the puppets can seem as if they are walking), animated projections, film clips and hundreds of props. It’s told through delirious poetic passages as well as a Smithsonian library of straight and parodic musical genres, ranging from the blues and doo-wop to tango, sardonic country-Western, jazz, reggae and techno. The music is composed and directed by Lincoln Schleifer, with other work by Bob Telson, who was Breuer’s composer for their highly successful work, The Gospel at Colonus.
As in many non-Western storytelling performance traditions, the narrative itself as well as the dialogue and verbal interaction is read, sung and spoken by off-stage voices. Thus Breuer stylistically adapts Brechtian sprechstimme (speech-song), African-American and country talking blues, even rap, with nonstop sound that makes the production careen along like a runaway train in a demented underworld Disneylandscape. That is fitting, since Breuer credits Disney as an influence, and since scenes in Part 1 of La Divina Caricatura, like Dante’s Inferno, take place in a contemporary Hades: Manhattan’s Lower East Side subway stations.
The voice for Rose is the remarkable Bernadine Mitchell, whose previous credits include performances as Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Mrs. Potts in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and stints in musicals and with gospel groups. John is sung and spoken by the singer-songwriter (and Breuer’s previous collaborator) John Margolis. Other solo and ensemble voices deftly assume accents and vocalizations as peculiar as their characters. The longtime Mabou Mines actor Terry O’Reilly bleats advice to Rose as a lawyerly sheep. Puppetry director Jessica Scott animates all them, including Butch Bunny, a transvestite rabbit; Porco, a prig Porky Piggish addiction program director; and Sri Moo, a ten-foot tall masked purple draped sacred cow who will eventually aid Rose in her Hindu-like reincarnations when Parts 2 and 3— Ecco Porco and The Warrior Ant— are produced. Yes, pigs and ants– as Breuer, an equal opportunity artist parodist, also credits E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins for informing him on the science of genetic evolution.
‘You’re the heel’
No doubt Breuer possesses epical credentials. His previous work is animal animated and evolutionary, beginning with The Red Horse Animation and B. Beaver, through The Shaggy Dog Animation, The Warrior Ant, Epidog, and Ecco Porco. He has been living and working in all forms of theater in America, Europe, Asia, the South Pacific. All of these sources— from classical Japanese Bunraku puppetry to unique renditions of Samuel Beckett’s plays to gospel services combined with Greek tragedy as The Gospel at Colonus– vivaciously flash in the blinking of strobe lights and the pop of puppets cha-cha-ing to lyrics like: “Heel, girl! And I said, ‘No, John, you’re the heel!’”
In the end, after the song and dance and salacious scenes of interspecies desire and cartoon emotionality that resonate with mythic insight and hints of enlightenment, Rose is resigned to ask Sri Moo “for deliverance from the body of my imagination.” We know that she won’t be going to the animal farm in the heavens. This is an American epic, after all, and there will surely be a second life and– and a third! Then, probably, revivals and re-runs. As it is written.
LIBRETTO, LYRICS and DIRECTION
PUPPET & MASK DESIGN
Rose and Sri Moo – Julie Archer
John and Suli – Eric Novak
Porco, Bulgakov, Sheepish and “The Original Poppers” – Jessica Scott
Broadway – Emily DeCola
Music Composed and Arranged by Lincoln Schleifer
Music Direction Lincoln Schleifer
Music for “Sister Suli Cinema” and “Lemon Ice” by Bob Telson
“John and Suli’s Music” by John Margolis
BERNARDINE MITCHELL – Rose
JOHN MARGOLIS – John
THE WILD WOMEN:
DANIEL K. ISAAC
Produced by Mabou Mines, Piece by Piece Productions, St. Anns Warehouse and Dovetail Productions
Development Producer- Sharon Levy, Dovetail Productions
Production Manager: Dodd Loomis
Technical Director: Joseph SIlovsky
Stage Manager: Nicole Press
Assistant Director: Dodd Loomis
Props Master: Christina Bryant
Assistant Stage Manager: Melissa Shaw
Assistant Puppetry Director: Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith
Production Assistant: Charlie Kanev
Concert Performance at PS122 – June, 2010
Residency at Towson University – April, 2011
Concert Performance at PS122 – August 1, 2011
Workshop presentation at Mabou Mines ToRoNaDa – April, 30, 2012
Work-in-progress Performance at The Public Theater as part of UTR – Jan. 11, 2013
SPECIAL FUNDING PROVIDED BY:
The National Endowment for the Arts American Masters Grant, The Jim Henson Foundation, Axe-Houghton Foundation, Esther Fortunoff Green, The Charles Haar & Suzanne Keller Haar Charitable Foundation, The December Second Fund (a donor advised fund) and many generous individuals.
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Mia Yoo, Mark Tambella and all the amazing folks at La MaMa, Patrick Nash, Derek Lloyd & PS122, Materials for the Arts.
THESE PERFORMANCES ARE DEDICATED TO RUTH MALECZECH.