Anna Kiraly and Kuba Gontarczyk's Slow Ascent, a shadow puppet play accented with live action, is about one of those things that happens in the crazy world of corporate New York City. In spite of its title, it is anything but slow. Playing at the Theater for the New City as part of the Voice 4 Vision puppet theater festival, the show portrays a nameless Everyman who finds himself bored and nervous in his office building's elevator as it makes a dreadfully slow ascent. Stuck in this box, Everyman is confronted by a giant frog with a hysterical laugh eerily reminiscent of Peter Lorre. Frog, as this character wishes to be addressed, needs Everyman's help to fight a heroic battle to prevent the city's destruction by an earthquake of biblical proportions—that night. They must rendezvous after work, in the boiler room. Maybe it is a dream, or a fantasy—or not.
Kiraly and Gontarczyk tell an uncanny, amusing story, and their medium matches their message perfectly. Everyman, played with lovely physical subtlety by Kazu Nakamura, dances an eerie duet in a box-shaped white space with his two-dimensional, downsized "shadow" double: a translucent photograph of Nakamura in costume, disembodied and reassembled as a rod puppet, in a light box "elevator" car.
The light box is one of many different representations of the elevator that the show contains. Nakamura paces around on a white square mat that garishly stands out in the Theater for the New City's black box. It is a two-dimensional elevator space, and in it he seems as confined as a Marcel Marceau character feeling the boundaries of his invisible cube.
Photo rod puppets also represent Frog and a mysterious woman who crosses Everyman's path at work and wakes him from his dreams. The ascent and descent of the elevator is marked by a slow, perfectly vertical meteor trail of light streaking up and down the black pillar of a miniature skyscraper.
As Slow Ascent emphasizes, an elevator is a box in which stationary people are moved by an unseen external force. That is also an accurate definition of a puppet theater. Just as the corporate world drains color from its 9-to-5 denizens, so does Kiraly and Gontarczyk's transformation of Nakamura into his two-dimensional grayscale other self.
The only color in the show is the bright orange of the city in flames, in the Frog's apocalyptic vision, projected on the shadow theater screen. It is vivid and frightening, and takes on an alarming hyper-reality in contrast with the black, white, and gray world of the rest of the play.
Kiraly and Gontarczyk also take common phobias—of elevators and other enclosed spaces, frogs, earthquakes, and loneliness—and reproduce them in new, strange, and engaging forms. The incidental music, by Joemca, added to the mysticism of the proceedings, and the three puppeteers—Alissa Mello, Morgan Eckert, and Michael Kelly—keep the flat figures as animated as Nakamura is.
Slow Ascent uses puppetry, but it isn't your everyday Punch and Judy show. Kudos to Voice 4 Vision and Theater for the New City for bringing it to New York audiences.