Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Long Christmas Ride Home (A Puppet Play with Actors) - by Paula Vogel

The Long Christmas Ride Home
was first produced in 2003 in a co-production by The Long Wharf Theater and Trinity Rep, it moved to NYC later in the year.

In her introduction Vogel cites a misunderstanding of Bunraku puppet theatre as a starting point for this play, and the feeling of church pageants in church basements and community halls. As there are puppets, singing, and dancing in the play it makes sense to encourage a DIY ethic to theatres considering mounting a production - and it places it in a very specific realm for the reader.

The play can be performed by six actors. A male and female narrator, who give voice to the puppets and whose bodies provide visual reference points for the mother and father. The puppets, operated by actors, are the three children in the family. Additionally there is the Minister, who takes on other roles as needed.

It is Christmas. The family is in the car traveling to Christmas service at the Universal Unitarian Church. The internal thoughts of each family member are shared with us by the narrators who describe, take voices, and perform their own physical roles as mother and father. We learn the secrets, that aren't very secret. Particularly Dad's affair.

They arrive at church and pile into the service, there is singing, there are thoughts - the other woman is across the room, and the minister shares a slide show from his recent trip to Japan, Woodblock prints of the Floating World, an era in Japanese culture seeking to embrace the pleasure of the ephemeral flesh without guilt, to find beauty in the commonplace. The service concludes with a moment of spectacle - a Nativity Scene performed in dance and puppets.

The family travels to their Grandparents, where tensions bubble over while presents are given, a really wonderful scene. Each one more laden than the last. Finally a breaking point - Grandpa confronts Father about his philandering, calls him a "kike" and they lock arms to wrestle. The family bundles out of there and back into the car. There is a beautifully poetic visual moment leading from the youngest girls understanding of what happened at grandma's - and then, the moment that cracks everything open. Dad smacks mom across the face.

From here the play shatters. Each puppet child's thought at this moment is shared and then the puppeteer is broken from their child to become the adult. Each grown child hits a wall, each unique, each a line sketched from that moment, that Christmas -and each are saved by a breath from their sibling. The one who died young, the one who didn't grow older.

The Ghost of this one gets the penultimate moment, creating a folktale that could be as old as any story told in our culture, but beautifully was made right here in front of us. And then, Dancing, and the beauty of the commonplace. But before the play is done we are returned to the slap, and the moment after, and the family holding their breath as one, before they can start to breathe again.

Vogel's accumulation of images, ideas, and language that finds manifestation in character, dialogue, story, situation, spectacle, dance, music - every tool the theater has to offer is saturated in the play which is more than anything here on the page, and infuses every moment with it's animating breath.

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