Oblivious to the gathering thunderclouds in my world, Everyman the puppet snoozed under his colorful patchwork quilt.
In Everyman’s world, in fact, a glowing sun was rising (courtesy of a TV monitor) and continuing its journey (on yet another screen). At some point, Everyman would awake to find a hole in his belly, which would inevitably set him on a path with no easy resolution.
But at this moment, the realities of my world have violently intruded. In a cavernous River District studio, the cast members rehearsing The Anatomy of Melancholy, a puppet-theater presentation for adults, couldn’t help but be distracted by last Monday night’s storm that began whipping up rain, wind and ominous rumbles of thunder.
Creative team member David McConville decided to pull the plug on the sun to prevent his equipment from frying. Then, the storm itself cut off all the juice.
Cast members were left cracking melancholy jokes in the darkened studio.
Despite the subject matter, many of the folks working to create Anatomy radiate a decidedly buoyant energy — most of all, Director Pamella O’Connor, who good-naturedly guides the production to fit her vision of the work.
More than a year ago, O’Connor stumbled across a copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy at Downtown Books & News. Bewitched by the title, she engaged writer Jessica Klarp (who also penned Beaucatcher for Asheville Melodrama) to distill Robert Burton’s hefty tome, written in 1621, into a digestible piece for modern audiences. In it, Burton elaborates on the myriad causes — and possible cures — of melancholy.
With O’Connor’s handcrafted puppets and a team of puppeteers, a “work in progress” version of Anatomy opened last April — which in turn set the stage for this year’s collaboration.
In the audience back then were McConville and Nicole Tuggle, fans of both puppetry and Anatomy; McConville, in fact, once bought Tuggle a 19th-century, three-volume edition of the 17th-century work at a bookstore attached to the avant-garde Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.
The pair found that some audience members were unsettled by the trailing strands of stories — nothing was resolved on a tidy, cheerful note.
“It’s good to make people feel a little uncomfortable,” offers Tuggle.
The production “is about breaking boundaries,” agrees O’Connor.
Tuggle and McConville were so moved and inspired by Anatomy as to take the unusual step of immediately offering to help O’Connor mount this year’s endeavor.
“I felt a kinship with the aesthetic,” explains Tuggle, a mixed-media artist drawn to found objects.
The production projects a discernibly minimalist ambience, from the rustic, wood-like puppets O’Connor has created to the towering steel set fashioned by artist John Payne, best known for his life-sized steel dinosaurs.
“Copesetic aesthetic,” muses McConville, who’s known for his digital wizardry.
Happily, a task was waiting for them. At O’Connor’s suggestion, Klarp had included references in the script to projected images, although those visuals hadn’t materialized in the “work in progress” version.
While McConville was watching from the audience, he imagined those missing images.
So when O’Connor accepted their offer of help, McConville and Tuggle set about producing a video to be projected on twin screens set like bookends on either side of Payne’s set.
Along with the new digital effects (which likewise adhere to the minimalist aesthetic), the updated production includes several more puppets, an expanded script and additional performers: puppeteers Betsy Browning, Sadie Osterloh and Nina Ruffini, along with narrator Ralph Redpath. Dancer Yoko Myoi returns from New York to serve as lead puppeteer, while Susannah Myers is assistant director and Terra Gorman handles the projections. Dan Henry designed the lights.
The unexpected “bang”
At last week’s rehearsal, the non-electricity-dependent production members eventually continued their work after Payne raised a huge garage bay door to provide more light.
Watching a pair of limber puppeteers work out the kinks of another scene, I was struck by the impressive amount of muscle — and surprising good cheer — being funneled into this fleeting illusion of self-absorbed gloom.
In this scene, a male puppet schleps along with a downcast face while the narrator intones haunting words from the text: “Witness the lone soul. His mind full of melancholy thoughts. Wandering aimlessly. Solitude a siren’s call. Happy madness and delightful illusion. No manner of distraction will extricate him from his musing.”
A bit of human contortion is necessary to create the puppet’s walking surface: A wide pair of boards rested atop the backs of the two puppeteers, who were bent in half at the waist as they practiced turning in graceful, sweeping steps (while endeavoring to keep the boards level).
Of course, even melancholy has its absurd moments. In another scene, a pregnant puppet helps illustrate another of Burton’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek “causes” of melancholy: any number of elements (germs, for instance, or a toy gun unfurling a “bang” banner) could frighten the expectant mother and result in a melancholy baby. To clinch the point, Myoi (operating the toy gun) let loose a baby’s rollicking cry, which echoed off the studio walls.
These creative team members feel that melancholy — despite the centuries-old inspiration that spurs this production — deserves to claim its rightful place in today’s world.
Specifically, McConville believes Anatomy speaks (without being heavy-handed) of contemporary issues in a world where people seldom reflect on why they feel the way they do.