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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 10:42 pm | Fair 56º


Review: Lit Moon Theatre Lights Up the Stage

World Theatre Festival exhibits exquisite blend of theater, dance, music and even puppetry

In its 19th season, Lit Moon Theatre Co., under the direction of John Blondell, employs a brilliantly versatile core cast, live musicians and soaring imagination to present theatrical works — both original and adapted — with a keen sense of wit, grace, humanity and quirk. The company’s biannual World Theatre Festival brings actors and material from faraway lands to our own backyard. Lit Moon also regularly travels overseas to perform at theater festivals and events worldwide.

This year’s festival presented an exquisite mix of theater, dance, live music and even a dash of puppetry. Reviewed below are four of the six programs presented Sept. 10-18 at Center Stage Theater.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, adapted from a beloved story by Swedish Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf by Naomi Iizuka, was a co-production of Lit Moon and Finnish company Tampereen Teattri. Directed by Blondell, this collaboration continues the relationship commenced in 2007 when Lit Moon hosted a festival of contemporary Finnish drama. After debuting it here, Blondell will travel to Europe to direct its premiere there.

It doesn’t seem possible that a cast of six could depict more than 30 human (sort of) and animal characters, but this talented ensemble skillfully shifted between characters with only slight changes to posture, voice and movement.

Mitchell McLean as Nils, the boy who journeys from callous to compassionate by traveling with a flock of wild geese, showed visible transformation by the final scene in bearing and demeanor. Marie Ponce may have actually lived a past life as a squirrel, so spot-on was her portrayal of the nervous but plucky creature. Kate Louise Paulsen was graceful in her movements, but not without a firm grip of levity as horse, goose, owl and occasional narrator. Victoria Finlayson was regal as the matriarch goose of the flock, and Stan Hoffman provided the outsider view as young farmyard goose who joins the wild flock and befriends Nils. Peter Duda seemed equally at home embodying elf, fox and noble eagle raised by geese.

Original music performed by Lit Moon regular Jim Connolly on upright bass provided subtle, rich and textured atmosphere for each scene. The very effective scenic design by Marjatta Kuivasto and Ilpo Jokelehto of the Finnish company consisted of various sized panels of painted blue sky and clouds, framed and hung.

Appropriate for families, and attended by more than a handful of youngsters, the play provided many levels on which to appreciate it as well, for grownups still in touch with their inner children.

Having seen two productions of The Wedding previously, this reviewer was nonetheless delighted to have a chance to experience it again. Also directed by Blondell, this original one-act musical comedy on the subject of marriage is weird in a wonderful way.

Three women of various ages, dressed in white, discuss wedded bliss in dialogue reminiscent of Anton Chekhov (it was inspired by a Russian play) while pursuing a disheveled and bewildered man, seemingly in his own home. Occasionally they burst into snappy song and dance numbers to fantastic original live music by Connolly and Anna Abbey, performed onstage with upright bass and piano. No, it really doesn’t make sense, but rather than being off-putting, the experience of seeing these characters show genuine glimpses of humanity in such an odd situation is viscerally comforting.

The four performers — Hoffman, Paulsen, Ponce and Finlayson — are to be commended on the flawless execution of clever staging and choreography. Several stretches of unison dialogue with the three women were perfectly rendered as well. Hoffman evoked widespread emotions with his expression and nonverbal utterances — without a single word. The only criticism of this piece is that at just an hour long, it’s too short!

I Was Greta Garbo was one of the non-Lit Moon offerings of the festival. Directed by Finola Hughes, star of General Hospital and the 1983 movie Staying Alive, this one-woman show starred Ottiliana Rolandsson as the reclusive Swedish actress.

Rolandsson moved easily between portraying Garbo as an old woman just before her death, a child putting on shadow puppet plays for her family, and the actress in the full flower of her youth and beauty. She also acted as narrator of her own life story after her death. Elements of comedy, tragedy and nostalgia worked well together here.

Fusion 5.0, a superlative evening of dance blended with creative elements of theater, closed the festival on Saturday evening.

Robin Bisio’s multilayered visual feast, “Love on the Altar of Impermanence,” premiered earlier this year and was performed by three female dancers against what is becoming Bisio’s trademark — her own film of dancers on a beach, in artful slow motion. Live original music was provided by Alixandra MacMillan-Fiedl on guitar and vocals and Kevin Evans on vocals and trumpet. The alternative-folky sound of the songs added a lovely rustic overlay, and the dancers’ artful and animated manner made this a joy to see.

“Lotuseater,” also by Bisio, had Erika Kloumann dancing against a projected dance film made by Catherine Bennett. More contemplative than the larger piece seen earlier, it gave the same multilevel gratification.

“Maiden’s Sorrow” by Victoria Finlayson was a solo danced by Malia Wee reflecting melancholy moments of the sacrificial maiden from Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” In a flowing black dress, Wee depicted the moments of joy, fear and despair felt by this girl.

“Skin and Hearthstones,” a brilliant portrayal of human relationship dynamics, was conceived of and performed by Jeff Mills and Christina McCarthy. Dressed in street clothes with a vaguely early 20th-century look, they demonstrated many phases of a romantic relationship — the passion and sweetness, the conflict, and anger and regret — with sensitivity and great depth. Aside from a table and two chairs, the only item onstage was a white cloth, which to this couple symbolized some deeply important facet of life as they wrestled over it and then spitefully threw it back at each other. The raw emotion and powerful simplicity of their physicality was stunning, using the table, chairs and each other. At one point, McCarthy literally climbed down Mills’ body like a tree.

“Love, Petrushka,” based on the ballet Petrushka, was a magnificent piece of dance/puppetry theater choreographed by McCarthy. Three dancers together portrayed a magician, using large papier-mache hands and long, flowing robes, who imparts real human emotion to three puppets, manipulated by three more dancers. McCarthy also created the puppets and, along with Ann Bruice, the striking costuming. The dim, moody lighting and fairy-tale elements gave this piece a mystical, magical quality that was entrancing.

This masterful blend of dance, theater and puppetry was truly the crowning glory to an exceptional theater festival by Lit Moon.

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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