Jody Christopherson

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Production still from FERAL, making its US premiere at Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Amy Downes

Sometimes you watch a piece of theater and your response is “Wow, that took a lot of work.”

Those are the plays to keep an eye on.

The combination of sets, puppets, sound design, and lighting in Feral, now playing at 59E59 by Tortoise in a Nutshell, flow together to create an emotionally moving and powerful theatrical experience.

Feral is a puppet show filmed live. Witnessing the impressive technical accomplishment is at least half of the enjoyment of the experience. The three puppeteers – Alex Bird, Arran Howie, and Matthew Leonard – dash maniacally around the stage, moving set pieces, lifting and dropping puppets, and splashing the stage with various puppet-size bits of debris to set the scene.

The show begins with a man — a real man, not a puppet– coming out on stage and making a drawing of a little boy. (The paper he draws on is filmed and projected onto a large overhead screen, as is everything else in the production.) The man names the boy Joe. Next to Joe he draws his sister Dawn. We quickly and cleverly learn that Joe idolizes Dawn.

A mom and a cat are added to this scribbled family, and then the action jumps from 2D to 3D. Small puppets spring up on stage and are filmed up close as they move in and out of small models of buildings that are placed around the stage – a butcher, a greengrocer, an apartment block. We take a little tour through a pleasant working-class urban community, with street sweepers whistling and old men reading newspapers in the bath.

Then the Supercade arrives. Is it a shopping center? Is it a casino? I’m still not sure. But it’s billed as a boon to the local economy, producer of hundreds of jobs. More importantly, it is welcomed with giddy excitement by little Joe and his sister Dawn.

As one might expect, things don’t go as planned.

So far I’ve described this play as though it has a strong narrative element. But that’s a lie. It’s more of a tone piece, capturing a feeling and a place and a moment with music, images, and sound effects. We are delicately drawn into the shifting fortunes of this community that lives on the knife’s edge of survival.

A great deal of the emotional effect of the play is wrought not through the puppeteers, but the two men who sit quietly (but in full view) at the edge of the stage. On the left is Jim Harbourne, who operates what looks like a DJ deck and who populates the space with music and sounds effects. He loops his own vocalizations and intermixes them seamlessly with prerecorded compositions.

On the right side of the stage is the director Ross MacKay, who live edits the show, cross-fading skillfully between the multiple cameras that the 3 puppeteers use to film the action.

Another lovely and generous feature of this production is the way the performers remain on stage after the performance and invite the audience to join them. They stand shyly and answer questions about their technique, as the audience comes up close and inspects the puppets and sets.

This production was an award-winning sell-out success at Summerhall in Edinburgh, and I understand why. This short 55-minute piece manages to evoke pathos in ways that avoid emotional manipulation and feel genuinely original.

Feral

Tuesday, May 14 to Sunday, June 19, 2019

Brits Off Broadway

59 E 59th Street

Tickets available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/

Running time 55 minutes

CAST:

ALEX BIRD

JIM HARBOURNE

ARRAN HOWIE

MATTHEW LEONARD

ROSS MACKAY

SCENIC DESIGN: AMELIA BIRD

LIGHTING DESIGN: SIMON WILKINSON

ORIGINAL MUSIC & SOUND DESIGN: JIM HARBOURNE

PRODUCER: TORTOISE IN A NUTSHELL

TECHNICAL DIRECTOR: ANDREW GANNON

AEA STAGE MANAGER: ALYSSA K. HOWARD

Cameron Page has worked as an actor, freelance writer, and Kaplan test prep teacher. He welcomes all your questions and trolling, find him @cameronpage

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Cameron Page on Feral at 59E59