When Tarocco: A Soldier’s Tale debuts Friday, May 29, at The Orange Peel, it will mark the completion of a long and complex trail that began, appropriately enough, on a forest trail. In 2012, Nat Allister attended a Full Moon Gathering — a monthly Asheville tradition of hiking, staying up all night in the woods, dancing to electronic music and making art — where he talked with friends about crafting a circus based around the fool’s journey of the Tarot.
“I wanted to attempt to create a narrative that might justify an artistic livelihood in a world so overwhelmingly fraught with brutality and thought that the fool’s journey was the perfect framework for such heavy subject matter,” Allister says.
Once he started working on the script, however, the artistic director for local collective The Fox & Beggar Theater found that the Tarot wasn’t working for him. He craved something older, less accessible and less popular, finding all of that in the Tarocco Piemontese, a 500-year-old card game that predates the standard Tarot of Marseilles and is riddled with darker and stranger undertones.
Allister further expanded his vision by incorporating his longtime obsession with the Italian Renaissance and his interest in the Italian theater tradition of Commedia dell’arte, to which he often turns for artistic inspiration. But for his fantasy story to feature an escape into the beauty of Venice, he realized that it would need to be juxtaposed against a much grittier reality.
“And thus, my fool came to be born as an Italian World War I soldier, caught in the crossfire of one of the bloodiest — and arguably the most pointless — wars in the history of the world,” Allister says. “The world of the Tarocco becomes his escape out of a violent reality and into a beautiful fantasy world.”
In autumn 2013, with the full concept taking shape in his mind, Allister and his Fox & Beggar collaborators came to the realization that they couldn’t produce Tarocco using their current resources (which included a modest Kickstarter campaign) without making countless compromises and creating what Allister calls “a weak shadow of my original vision.” So Fox & Beggar decided to table the production for a year and instead employed Allister’s play Animalia as the company debut.
That production broke attendance records at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater during its April 2014 run. Initially intended as a smaller endeavor, the production’s cast and crew of nearly 100 casts doubt on that modesty, but Allister says that it was a relatively low-risk venture and one that proved phenomenally educational as far as producing large-scale stage performances. “I learned how and where an audience watches action on a stage. I learned what kinds of subtleties an audience will pick up on and which ones might go over their heads unnoticed,” Allister says. “And I learned to respect the all-powerful Murphy’s Law, which is the only law you need to pay attention to when putting together such a technically complex stage production.”
Another facet of Allister’s new knowledge involved the challenges inherent to outdoor productions. Tarocco was originally envisioned on the sizable Hazel Robinson stage, playing to its large-capacity house and involving pyrotechnics. But sacrificing those perks for an indoor setting translated to control over everything that Fox & Beggar couldn’t influence in the open air. “The light. The sound. The temperature. The weather,” Allister says. “Last year, it snowed and rained during Animalia’s tech week, which meant that opening night was the first time we ever ran the full show. That was right about the time I vowed never to do an outdoor show again.”
Safe from the elements on The Orange Peel stage, the contributions of Allister’s “dream team” of artists and volunteers shine in ways they never could outside. Among the many brilliant minds involved in the show are Donovan Zimmerman of the renowned Saxapahaw-based troupe Paperhand Puppet Intervention and set designer Travis Eagledove, whose creations for the show include a 10-foot-tall medieval alchemical wheel that may be spun to simulate a Tarot reading. Arborist Forest Kelly, who’s in charge of the show’s aerial rigging, custom-welded Allister an aerial toy that he says has never before been seen in Asheville.
Also part of the crew is video artist Daniel Sabio, creator of a piece of digital animation that will interact with the dancers on stage; local puppeteer Madison Cripps, who’s engineered a piece for the show’s final scene; and Sneaky McFly, who helped design a bit of stage magic that Allister says “should make the audience scratch their heads no matter how many times they see it.”
WHAT: Tarocco: A Soldier’s Tale
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Friday, May 29; Saturday, May 30; Friday, June 5 and Saturday, June 6, at 8 p.m. $35 VIP/$21 general admission/$16 budget