Giving melancholy a chance

In the rear of a garagelike rehearsal studio in the River District, puppeteers Yoko Myoi and Robyn Strawbridge are sweating over their puppet tango scene from The Anatomy of Melancholy.

With a face resembling an African mask and a body like a wooden doll, Strawbridge’s male puppet spies Myoi’s female puppet standing on the other side of a wooden box. His round metal eyes sweep her form, which — apart from the brown breasts and metal curls sprouting from her head — is much like his own.

The male puppet makes his move, pulling his conquest toward him. The two nuzzle. Rhythmically rocking back and forth, the puppets rise from their wooden box and spin around in a love-locked embrace.

“This is the puppet sex scene: lewd but tender,” Strawbridge jokes a moment later, echoing a comment her boyfriend (also a puppeteer) made to the New York Times about a production in which he was appearing.

The scene delves into one cause (or cure, depending on your point of view) of the underappreciated emotion of melancholy, a subject thoroughly dissected in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, the 17th-century tome on which the production is based.

The encounter also illustrates the notion that puppets aren’t just for children — and that melancholy isn’t the same as chronic depression.

“I define melancholy as sweet sadness,” muses Director Pamella O’Connor. “It’s a feeling we often all get on those bluesy kind of days, when we’re feeling a little low.”

O’Connor (who’s also the co-founder/artistic director of the Asheville Puppetry Alliance) says she came up with the idea when she spotted a copy of Burton’s anthology at Downtown Books & News.

“I just loved the title,” recalls O’Connor, taking a break from sweeping out the rehearsal space.

But even O’Connor admits that, despite its esteemed place in English literature, Burton’s Latin-sprinkled, quotation-chocked treatise can prove tough going for modern audiences. Here’s a manageable sample: “You have heard how this tyrant Love rageth with brute beasts and spirits; now let us consider what passions it causeth amongst men.”

That’s why O’Connor turned to local writer Jessica Klarp (writer/director of the recently produced melodrama Beaucatcher) to adapt the book for theater. With the aid of a narrator (played by Shea Davies), puppeteers Myoi, Strawbridge and Rupa Vickers will illustrate scenes expressing Burton’s thoughts on melancholy’s causes (including parents, seasons, stars and solitariness) and cures (music, fresh air and confessions to a friend).

And don’t expect the puppets to trudge through the piece with a somber sort of lethargy. Cast members will move about constantly, testing their energy levels by hoisting boxes and planks. They also must clamber up and down steel towers designed by local artist John Payne, perhaps best known for his steel dinosaur creations. His fantastical set, a steel platform with four towers at the corners, features bicycle seats mounted halfway up that serve as human perches.

“The movement of the puppeteer is quite highly choreographed — or at least we’re trying to make it so,” reveals O’Connor.

She refers to The Anatomy of Melancholy as a “work in progress.” Next April, the production will be paired with Worn Shoes, by the late Natalia Ginzburg, in a full evening of puppetry for adults. Produced with the help of a $3,000 grant from the N.C. Arts Council, O’Connor also hopes to take the show on the road, perhaps on the college circuit.

Filling the void

The Anatomy of Melancholy‘s subject matter resonates with O’Connor, who offers: “Anyone who’s alive and is asking the big questions — ‘Why am I here? What’s it all about, Alfie? What’s going to happen when I’m gone? Is there life after death?’ — if you’re asking those questions, you’re going to experience melancholy.”

The production has also prompted cast members to consider the upside of that mood.

“I’m intrigued with the idea of re-envisioning what the concept of melancholy really is,” reports Vickers. “I always thought of it as a very morose state of being.”

Now, however, she says she’s more willing to embrace the idea of melancholy, as well as other emotional states. Notes Davies, “I think it’s a very prevalent idea that you should always smile.” Though perhaps a valid practice, donning a perpetual smile, Davies maintains, doesn’t allow people to explore a range of emotions. The production, she notes, is “kind of indulging in this expression of emotion that people feel a little uncomfortable in talking about.”

O’Connor, however, emphasizes that the event is not about foisting depression on the audience.

“I’m not about torturing people,” she declares. “I’m about celebrating what we have in common, and it’s OK to acknowledge that we all get sad, and lots of things can cause it.”

And after all, the play does end on an optimistic note after a denouement that turns on filling a gaping hole in one puppet’s belly (though O’Connor won’t reveal exactly how that’s accomplished).

“Basically, what the show is about is filling your own hole — embracing your own happiness, being responsible for your own happiness, I guess,” O’Connor offers.

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