Flying Human Puppets

Taking puppetry, music, and storytelling to new heights, Red Beads at the Skirball Center sends its audience Combine the morbidity of Edgar Allan Poe, the childish seduction of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the wonder of a Tim Burton film, and the showmanship of Cirque du Soleil, and you can begin to imagine a genre for Red Beads. No stranger to defying genres (and remaking them), Mabou Mines avant-garde artist Lee Breuer heads the mammoth artistic team that brings us Red Beads. Since 1970, when the group, named after a town in Nova Scotia, was formed, Breuer has written and directed a number of shows. In both Shaggy Dog Animation, which won an Obie for best new play, and a series of other shows, Breuer depicted zoomorphic characters (in a Kafka-like manner) using various forms of puppetry. Inspired by Bunraku, the highly stylized 17th-century Japanese puppetry that uses three black-clad puppeteers to operate one rod-puppet, Breuer was striving for an American theater that employed unconventional methods to address modern-day issues, such as feminism and sexuality.

Frank Rich of The New York Times once said Mabou Mines is "experimental theater at its most incendiary." But Red Beads is less an incendiary show than a sanitized form of entertainment. Departing from his usual affinity for political immediacy, Breuer stages a children's story.

The simplistic yet cryptic tale is adapted from Polina Klimovitskaya's original story, which is about a girl who is to receive her ailing mother's red bead necklace upon her 13th birthday, which is also Halloween. The text of this multimedia spectacle-poem is projected above the stage as opera subtitles. Sung arias and spoken word are used contrastingly to convey the dark tale.

Utterances from the primary actors (Clove Galilee, Gob Besserer, and Ruth Maleczech) alternate with operatic solos (Wonjung Kim, Alexandra Montano, and Alexander Tall). A chorus of 24 New York University students synchronously dance and act out the story's narration, which is spoken in a raspy female whisper over the sound system. The effect is an epic, grand-scale rite of feminine passage beautifully unraveled before us in light (an amazingly versatile design by Jennifer Tipton and Mary Louise Geiger), fabric (by Basil Twist), and music.

Ushio Torikai, who composed the show's innovative music, synthesizes Asian musical traditions with Western tonalities and instruments, including violin (Tom Chiu), harp (June Han), oboe (Jacqueline Leclair), flute (Erin Lesser), cello (Stephanie Winters), keyboard (Rob Schwimmer), and various percussion instruments, such as the xylophone (Eric Phinney and Greg Beyer). Her postmodern pastiche waxes and wanes in relation to the action onstage, even offering occasional improvisational duets, as with the violin solo and the flight of the canary.

The visual embodiment of the canary (a wind-spirited yellow strip of silk) is the puppet creation of the extraordinary fabric connoisseur Basil Twist (of Symphonie Fantastique fame). Using wind instead of water this time, Twist paints an airscape with admirable effort but limited success. Big swaths of silk blanket the stage and impressively billow up to make hills, or are sucked under the stage to turn a grave into a black hole. But the sounds of working fans and the appearance of assistance wires and fabric snags interrupt an otherwise smooth flow.

Nonetheless, Twist does not fail to inspire awe. A basement scene where a number of black scarves devour a white one, representing a cat attacked by rats, is perhaps creepier than seeing the real thing. Twist's design and Julie Archer's costume scheme cleverly exploit the vertical plane that much of the show functions on (wire-suspended actors scaling walls, perpendicular beds). The show's pleasurably surrealist design evokes a sensual mutability of space and gravity.

Extending this effect are the show's puppets

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