The Fox & Beggar Theater, which you may remember from last year’s Animalia, is now staging its Tarot/tarocco piemontese-inspired fairy tale Tarocco: A Soldier’s Tale at The Orange Peel. Written and directed by Nat Allister, the production runs Fridays and Saturdays from May 29 to June 6.
The storyline of Tarocco starts out with a simple enough premise: The narrator is an Italian soldier who is fleeing a gas attack on a World War I battlefield. He takes shelter in an abandoned house where he finds another man, badly wounded. “The dead man asks me for a story,” The Solider tells the audiance. “But I have no stories.”
Yet the “dead man,” or The Fool (portrayed by Mateo Romero), pleads again and again. Anxious to ease his suffering, The Solider discovers a tarocco deck in the basement and uses it to weave a tale, which for The Fool — and the audience — brings each tarocco card to life.
In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it for Tarocco (with some notable developments in the final act). This isn’t necessarily a story-driven production. The cards are interpreted on stage as otherworldly beings — mysterious, sinister, seductive, violent, merciful — but they are not fully developed characters and their relationship to The Fool, who remains adrift on stage, is often nebulous.
It doesn’t really matter though. If Tarocco lacks in story, it overwhelms in sensory stimulation. There is color and light and music — and truly staggering accomplishments of mechanical know-how and finely trained muscles. The Spartan set (which is actually very striking in its own right) suits this production well as it allows the audience to see that nothing goes onto the stage without purpose or great attention-to-detail. From the hand-painted costumes, to the aerial rigging, to the truly spectacular creations by puppet masters Jennifer Murphy and Donovan Zimmerman (with contributions from Madison Cripps, Julie Vann, Rebecca Mellstrom and several other local artists), Tarocco is above all else a visual feast.
Tickets for the production come in three ranges: Budget, general admission and VIP. From my seat in the fifth row (but still VIP), I often wished to be closer to the stage as some details of costuming and makeup were indistinct to these eyeballs, which I suspect is my loss. And I imagine that some of the more subtle cards, where performances hinged on slight-of-hand and skillful dexterity, played a bit flat to the back of the room.
That said, there are enough oversized and lofty (in the most literal sense) feats going on here that I think a $16 ticket would still do you quite right. And yes, the performers do travel off the stage and into the audience — but I won’t tell you when or how because that would ruin some very enjoyable surprises.
Of course, Tarocco isn’t without its weaknesses. It’s a long procession of cards that are presented to our dying man, and some are more compelling than others. The pacing occasionally drags, though some of this is undoubtedly to allow time to execute the back-stage witchcraft that must be at work here. The lighting could be a bit funky and some of the best elements — a simply beautiful stop-motion animation sequence by Mellstrom and (my personal favorite) the incredible, oversized puppet/ apparatus that is L’eremita (The Hermit) — are a bit more difficult to see (even from the fifth row) than I would have liked.
There are also some clear stunners: Dancer Kristi Wrolstad was an early favorite, absolutely captivating the audience as L’imperatrice (The Empress, who is also, apparently, an ostrich). Eden May and Rob Lenfestey have an acro yoga performance about midway through the production that instantly put everyone around me literally on the edge of their seats. Romero, despite portraying the lead character, spends most of the story reacting to the action rather than driving it, but nonetheless elicited several cheers and most likely a few teary eyes from the audience. And the music, which is so seamlessly integrated into the production that you might think it was prerecorded, is actually performed live to great effect by vocalist Lisa Harkness and composer Marcin Bela (on keytar, no less!).
Of course, the show stoppers are aerial artists Hayley Adamson and Elijah Strongheart — though I won’t tell you anymore about their roles lest I spoil the drama. That said, no member of this cast or crew was not working their butts off, and the accomplishments on display are certainly not limited to these shout-outs.
Overall, Tarocco feels thoroughly and completely like an Asheville production, for good and for bad. It’s esoteric, ethereal and heady bordering on fustian. It perhaps borrows a bit too much from things you have seen before (I felt a strong desire to re-watch Pan’s Labyrinth afterwards), but it is sincere and staggeringly hardworking in its delivery. To me, the production is best understood as a celebration of creativity and DIY-ingenuity, the result of a troupe of devoted and undeniably talented players, craftsman and artists who set out to make something that would make an audience say, “Wow!” And in this manner, it greatly succeeds.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly credited the stop-motion animation to Daniel Sabio (who also contributes some very fine animation to the production, though not this particular element) and omitted Jennifer Murphy from the list of puppeteers. Apologies for the error!