This weekend in Seattle, five rapping singers, along with a violin, a cello, and a percussionist, live inside of the head of a Chinese immigrant who is trapped in a stuck elevator for 81 hours. Aaron Jafferis and Byron Au Young are collaborating with director Chay Yew on an edgy new show that will premier next spring at ACT in San Francisco. They call it hiphop opera, which is pretty accurate — it is sung drama that includes ensemble rapping as well as a large dose of musical theatre, sung in a combination of English, Mandarin, and Spanish — but the marketing moniker doesn’t capture the dramatic potential in the script. The show has the kind of genre-crossing creativity, humor, and just general cleverness that presenters need these days in order to engage audiences with pathologically short attention spans. Excerpts from the work-in-progress show were performed on Friday at the Wing Luke Museum.
Meanwhile, on the muddy shores of Lake Washington, Donald Byrd and Spectrum Dance Theatre are presenting their creepy (and I mean that in the best way possible!) version of Petrushka, a puppet with very adult issues that comes to life at the hand of his evil puppet-maker, is abused and murdered, finally returns as a redemptive power. Spectacular dancing is embedded in a tawdry carnival and freak show, and the audience wanders from scene to scene, witnessing spooky and disturbing vignettes from the short and unhappy life of Petrushka, both as live dance and as live dance captured through surveillance cameras. Dancers speak, moan, and portray carnival characters, both puppet and human. The audience is a passive witness to the puppet-master’s ultimate demise via his sadistic and single-minded sexual obsessions. Another very successful genre-busting experimental show. (And, in a nice bit of serendipity, Byron Au Young created some of the electronic soundtrack featured in this show.)
Meanwhile still, at the Northwest Puppet Theater, the puppeteers are mounting their annual puppet opera. This year, the puppets are collaborating with their human vocal partners and and a band led by Margriet Tindemans to perform Il Girello, an obscure Baroque comic opera that is much improved by the interjection of huge quantities of bathos and improv comedy. Puppet opera is yet another genre-breaking form of theater, in which dramatic flow and character development come from puppet/singer combinations, and in which great musical performances, spoken word, and silly sound effects combine side by side to achieve a surprisingly integrated theater experience.
All three of these performances stretch actors and dancers to portray multiple dramatic roles simultaneously. By using abstract theatrical presentation realized as rap, dance, and puppetry, they amplify and focus the human traits that are featured in the stories they tell. They are interesting, experimental, and, I hope, a good indicator as to where theater is headed. Both Petrushka and Il Girello are still playing in Seattle. Check them out – I particularly recommend seeing them back-to-back! And go to see Stuck Elevator when it premiers in San Francisco at ACT next year. It will be worth the trip.