Friday, November 16, 2012

Postcards from over the edge

One of the remarkable Sandglass puppets.
Last weekend the Charlestown Working Theater, which has earned a local reputation for taking surprising theatrical risks, presented the premiere of  D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks, the first attempt that I know of by anyone - here the adventurous puppeteer troupe Sandglass Theater of Vermont - to mine a piece of theatre from the experience of Alzheimer's patients.

As my father died of that dread disease (and as I'm probably carrying the genetic markers for it), the production was inevitably of interest - but I was somewhat surprised to discover the theatre was pretty much packed for the presentation, which gave me the impression an effort like this one is long overdue.

And the evening proved intriguing - it's a solid first step toward a full text and production.  But it's still only a first step.  The idea of (sensitively) portraying Alzheimer's patients with puppets proved inspired, and Sandglass has developed some superbly realized marionettes (designed by Coni Richards) to impersonate the nursing home residents interviewed to create this script.  It was clear that these folks are attempting to grapple honestly and honorably with the unique challenges of creating a "story" out of the fragments and fractures that count for narrative among the victims of this affliction.

Still, the production rarely limns the terror of a world descending into chaos and meaninglessness - which is what Alzheimer's patients experience every day - nor does it convey the incredible gallantry of those patients who fight the encroaching dark with all their might, desperately trying to paste together some explanation (any explanation) for where they are and how they got there.  Nor does it even begin to engage with such patients' tortured relationships with their families.

Instead, perhaps understandably, the actor/puppeteers allowed themselves to drift into affectionate, but slightly patronizing, comedy a little too often.  And the discombobulated "story" the interviewers eventually drew from their interviewees (using a suggestive technique they call "Timeslips") too clearly betrayed their own desire to build a kind of comforting fairy tale (perhaps for the audience, perhaps for themselves) from this very-raw material.  (The chaotic video, by Michel Moyse, struck me as closer to my father's experience.)

The performance was probably most effective when it conjured the poignant memories still haunting these patients' minds - such as the moment one elderly lady suddenly floated free from the confines of her wheelchair and danced as she did when she was a girl.   It may be that it will simply take Sandglass many more interviews, and many more workshops, to bring the entire production to that same high level.  But it's an artistic journey well worth taking.

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