It’s rare to see anything remotely like Torry Bend’s The Paper Hat Game: a seamless and brilliant performance collage of live puppets, small-scale set models, a variety of video modalities, intricate soundscape, and more. The delicacy, virtuosity, and utter freshness of this avant-garde theater work at the 3LD Art & Technology Center will delight you long after you’ve left the theater. Unselfconsciously Dada, surrealist, naturalist and psychodrama by turns, it is also none of those things: something utterly new. And, if you are a New Yorker, it will evoke the urban details and sounds that you never noticed make up your own life in the same way that you didn’t quite notice your childhood as you lived through it.
The story of The Paper Hat Game is based on Scotti Iseri, who would ride the trains in Chicago, making and giving out paper hats to fellow riders, mostly to their enchantment. Bend, creator and director of this extraordinary show, was among those who saw the real Iseri on the Chicago train day after day when she was a graduate student. At one point, she decided to also make and distribute paper hats on her train ride, but was never greeted with the same openness that Iseri, an app developer, inspired. The show is both a fascinating tribute to Iseri, but also to the vitality, the life, the people, the humdrum and the magic of a great city.
It is this throbbing, ever-shifting cityscape, its sounds, the screech of train wheels on tracks, recorded messages of all sorts, buildings, tunnels, windows, and most of all, trains, that The Paper Hat Game brings us, from behind a puppet stage whose height and width are a few feet in each direction. As the show unfolds, the city we no longer taste, smell, or hear rears up phantasmagorically and from every angle possible. At one point we find ourselves looking down on the head of a boy sitting in the subway; at another we are inside a subway car peering into the faces of passengers. Sizes of familiar objects shift and change. And for an instant suspended in time, a paper hat that flies out a window hangs in a huge space of sky, a glorious city, now tiny and spread out before it. All this as our paper hat-making hero weaves his way in and out of view.
The 50-minute production is visually and acoustically dense—exquisitely so. There are few words and just a small amount of dialogue that punctuate the soundscape. In this way, Colbert Davis and Matt Hubbs' sound design brings to our attention the vast world of urban sound we work so hard to push away, ignore, disregard. Yes, there are cellos thrown into the mix at several points and some violin ensemble work as well, but overwhelmingly this sound team has choreographed the bell of the trains we ride just before the train doors close, the mechanized announcements of train stations, the varieties of chugs and screeches of the iron monster, and so much more of the recognizable cityscape into a music that is suddenly foregrounded, heard, and, if only for a short magical space of time, no longer in the background.
Bend’s creative team from co-producers The Tank and 3-Legged Dog includes the amazing video designer, Raquel Salvatella de Prada, the haunting light design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, the fantastical puppet designer, Aaron Haskell, and five puppeteers: Angela Olson, Drina Dunlap, Steve Ackerman, Yolo Myoi, and Alex Young. The exquisite detail involved on the part of the team in coordinating multiple effects within the performance is astonishing: puppets and video with photo-in-motion and set pieces with soundscape and light.
Is this work, so grounded in an urban poetic, the harbinger of a new urban American transcendentalism? Like Scotti Iseri himself, The Paper Hat Game brings a childlike sense of wonder to the mundane. It lifts up the dross and detail that is the DNA of daily urban life so that we might see our city with fresh eyes, our lives with a new heart, and listen to our urban world with fresh ears.
Performances of The Paper Hat Game continue through July 17 at 3LD Art and Technology Center (80 Greenwich St., at Rector, in lower Manhattan). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students with valid student ID) and may be purchased by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006 or by visiting www.3ldnyc.org.