Incense, the smell that defines shops selling batik shirts and sarongs, smoking gear, and more incense, hits the senses as you pass through the curtains into the theater. The floor is the stage and rising from it are banks of seats. All is dimly lit. The music is tinny, played through a megaphone atop a helmet, atop a man standing motionless front center stage, holding the burning incense in a glass. Behind him, the stage glows with candles, and is set with sturdy tables, fronted by a bench with two empty hand puppets. The music continues, almost recognizable Johnny Cash spirituals, distorted by the megaphone. The helmeted man does not move. He is part of the ritual, part of the set – at least until his equipment is unplugged and he is relieved of his helmet and statuesque role.
TABLETOP TRAGEDIES – Three distinct stories
So begins our otherworldly trip into “new ways of expressing ritual and reflection”. That’s how troupe member Allyce Torres describes the raison d’etre for the work of Cabinet of Curiosity Events (COCE). As audience and troupe, we reflected upon death in three contexts: The Last Matador, a bullfight (death for the matador in this story), The Death and Life of Billy The Kid, and A Simple Soul, the burning at the stake of thirteenth century mystic Marguerite Porete. We were part of three rituals: the bullfight, the funeral, the burning. What makes this such a great experience? In the words of Frank Maugeri, Cabinet of Curiosities founder, their collection of artists creates “intimate spectacles, executed with perfection”. They draw the audience into their world through exacting attention to detail. Flawless original music performed mostly by Liz Chidester, supports the stories yet could stand alone. Puppets, masks, objects, even sand, are handled with focused care. We feel the manipulator’s attachment, respect and love for the inaminates through which they tell stories.
Collaboration of Rare Talent
The versatility of the troupe members adds energy. In one moment, Liz Chidester is singing the opening number. Then she and Mike Steele are Foley artists, switching from device to device, providing sound for the pantomime on stage. Allyce Torres sits facing away from the audience as her narrative casts the spell of Marguerite Porete’s life and painful death. Meanwhile, large shadow puppets perform her death ritual, ending with a shock as the consuming fire, personified by a wolf, snaps off her head. Dancers become puppeteers, singers become silent scroll box operators, everyone is a stage hand.
Multiple Forms of Puppet Theater in TABLETOP TRAGEDIES
Most forms of puppet theater are involved in Tabletop Tragedies. Three puppeteers handle articulated puppet Billy the Kid, in the Japanese bunraku style. Stick puppet dancers are made from story book doll cut outs and old-fashioned hand drills. Elaborate shadow puppets provide a safe experience of the burning death. Masks, both static and with moving mouths, reveal character personalities. Panoramic scroll boxes animate western chases on horseback. Yet none of the troupe are professional puppeteers. They are pushing the boundaries of their personal artistic development.
Watch for Upcoming Cabinet of Curiosity Events (COCE)
Unfortunately, TABLETOP TRAGEDIES is now closed. Post-performance, this reviewer had the opportunity to discuss future projects with Frank Maugeri and Seth Bockley, co-directors of TABLETOP TRAGEDIES. They are working on short-term and long-term projects. To assist the development process, COCE will begin a series of performances called Cereal. Yes, it’s a play on words – both an enjoyable meal and a story told in sequential parts. Cereal intends to be a celebration of community, puppetry, song, milk(s) and cereal. Look for it to premier in late May. Both Maugeri and Bockley promise the same level of excellence that is the hallmark of COCE productions.
Simultaneously, a longer work in development, Reflections on Fire, is the object based, image inspired life story of John Newton, writer of the words for the hymn Amazing Grace in 1773. COCE is collaborating with The Happiness Club. The Club is a diverse group of 40 Chicago young people who encourage positive values and social change through the creation of original hip-hop and pop music and dance. Their mission is to positively influence kids through the arts, to guide them in making sound decisions and to help them become role models in their communities. In this writer’s view, working in the aura of Cabinet of Curiosity will be a seminal experience for all involved, including future audiences. Look for an August premier.
To cast a larger net, COCE is also custom designing events and rituals utilizing the same concepts of collaboration and resonance. These are performed for corporate, civic and NFP events. For Halloween, Maugeri will art direct a grand Halloween party called Illumination for the Clayco Foundation.
Created and co-directed by: Frank Naugeri and Seth Bockley
Written by Seth Bockley
Designed by Frank Maugeri
Performed by Time Brickey, Liz Chidester, Nicole Laurenzi, Bran Moorhead, Mike Steele and Allyce Torres
Photos courtesy of Cabinet of Curiosity
Reviewer Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater. Involved in the audience since the early 80’s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of our theater scene, our exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. Ann handles public relations for authors and works on programs to help seniors with neurological movement disorders. Please visit her website for more information.
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