Clouded Sulphur (Death Is A Knot Undone): Theater Review
An avant-garde puppet performance about death and grief bows on an intimate stage in L.A.'s Chinatown.
Brenda Sierra, a 15-year-old sophomore, disappeared in 2002 walking to a friend’s house to get a ride to her Montebello high school. Her murdered body was found the following day near the Crestline Highway in San Bernardino County. No perpetrator has yet been identified. In this fantasia on the theme of being lost in a sparse, unforgiving wilderness, populated by strange creatures, three siblings wander: Brenda struggles to comprehend, sister Fabiola to persist in her quest and brother Julio to grieve, a tattoo on his chest of a weeping Tasmanian devil and the words “R.I.P. Bren-Bren.”
All the actors are puppets, if one discounts their 10 intermittently visible black-clad manipulators and three incantatory speaking voices. Their faces are fixed and unmoving, but their bodies gesture with eloquent and subtle posture and movement. The narration of writer Erik Ehn draws from disparate rhetorical modes, laden with tropes from hard-boiled fiction and obscure poetic flights, the words deployed more musically than dramatically: “Blunt force blows to the head… Missed hair appointment?”
Automata has been a fecund local company dedicated for nearly a decade to puppets as performing objects and instruments of avant-garde expression. Unimaginably, their original space on Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake was even more claustrophobic and airless than their current narrow storefront home in Chinatown, which at least boasts a high ceiling and panoramic wide wall along which the performance’s set of starkly piled dirt implies an epic sense of expanse. The size of the individual puppets (including a careening automobile) creates a relative sense of perspective and distance, implying action by a suggestion of its essence.
The primary informing aesthetic may derive from the classic Japanese bunraku style, though the sensibility remains stubbornly contemporary in its mash-up of cultural materials, a cacophony of influences rendered in a singular distinctive vision, notwithstanding the intense level of collaboration clearly required. The master orchestrator of these elements, which include complicated projections as well as some animation, would be director and puppet designer Janie Geiser, one of the founders of Automata and professor at CalArts. The visual coherence of the piece is never less than extraordinary, with lapidary attention to the most fine of allusive details, even while its meanings can wander into the obscure or abstruse. Complementing the overall dread is the omnipresent yet unobtrusive music of Valeria Opielski, which sounds rather as if a film score had been concocted by one of her teachers, the pioneering Pauline Oliveros.
Though briefly premiered early this year, the current run is part of the ongoing Radar L.A. Festival of international theater and performance.
Venue: Automata, Chinatown (through Sept. 29)
Cast: Baxley Andresen, Tane Kawasaki, Moira Macdonald, Alexis Macnab, Erin O’Donnell, Eli Presser, Whitney Rodriguez, Hilario Saavedra, Zachary Schwartz, Luis Tentindo, Jonathan Williams, Melody Yenn
Director & Puppet Design: Janie Geiser
Writer: Erik Ehn
Music: Valeria Opielski
Lighting Design: Jeffrey Teeter
Set Design: Saran Krainin
Sound Design: Colbert Davis
Video Design: Carole Kim
Costume Design: Catherine Adell
Technical Design & Direction: Sarah Sowell
Producer: Miranda Wright