Tortoise in a Nutshell, an Edinburgh-based visual theater company has finally been able to coordinate with 59E59 Theaters for its 2019 Brits Off Broadway season. The company, which first premiered Feral at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is a multi-award-winning group which combines film, and digital theatricals. These include watching the technicians as performers create a show with pre-set miniature pieces which they then animate to tell a story.
The company which travels far and wide and has presented its works not only in the UK, but also in Denmark, Austria and Mexico enjoys creating productions that are unique, innovative and impossible to categorize. Feral in its U.S. Premiere is one such production that combines a use of miniature puppetry, small digital video cameras, live camera action projected on a screen. The productions include background lighting of the set pieces and sound effects as well as a mixed musical score that enhances the story-telling.
Feral, which Tortoise in a Nutshell is presenting in an original co-production with Cumbernauld Theatre, focuses on a family. Sister Dawn, brother Joe and their mum live in a town by the sea. They are symbolic and representative as is their town whose “town fathers” decide to allow developers to come in and open a “Supercade.”
What happens as a result of this development becomes disastrous. The picturesque landscape eventually is marred by the types of people who come to the “Supercade.” The quaint shops and daily life of the town’s citizens are wrecked and increasingly law enforcement must be called in to stop muggings, thefts, violent crimes, sexual assaults and general vandalism that occurs. Additionally, it is suggested that the developers used chicanery to bribe the officials or worm their way into the area. This corruption has been overlooked and the Supercade occludes everything. Though we don’t know whom, someone has probably become very rich at the expense of the citizens undermining the tenor and gracefulness of a once peaceful place.
The townspeople attempt to protest what is going on to little effect. And the once lovely beginnings have tragic endings as the wildness in human nature takes over spurred on by the Supercade. However, the production doesn’t end on a completely nihilistic note. There is always hope.
The ingenuity of Feral is not in the “what” but in the “how.” Process is everything with this theater company. The miniatures used are tiny by comparison to average sized puppets. This enhances our interest in them. The model town is all of a piece, the same type of delicate architecture and color and made from the same materials. The beauty of this work is in how the collaborators put the setting together and effect the characters operation in it.
It takes a while for the town and its individuals to be introduced by the cast (Alex Bird, Jim Harbourne, Aaran Howie, Matthew Leonard and Ross Mackay) who build the setting with the houses and shops and then place the inhabitants in their appropriate settings or work the music and background sound effects. This set-up is an important part of the presentation because we see the Hair Shop, the Bakery, the Lighting Shop, the Church, etc., the typical patrons and even some of the animals as familiar, homely residents. We readily identify.
As the cast completes the initial set it up, we do appreciate how adorable the miniatures appear and the camera work that focuses on them in close-up so that we are present on the same level with the characters. Thus, we become a part of what can only be described as a sweet, functioning, bucolic, little piece of heaven where the inhabitants are contented and enjoy their placement there in the universe.
However, we only see the externals. The presentation never proceeds into anything deeper within the individuals. It is a parable with a larger symbolic focus, that of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. In miniature, the cast, creative team and production team have engendered what happens when a town’s equilibrium is upset by development that has, at its basis, corruption and malfeasance. And when the goals do not align with human beings’ needs, desires and well being, catastrophe occurs.
In Feral the wild impulse is diverted in the goal to make money without consideration for how the “development” whether it be digital-technological (the iPhone, Facebook, Amazon) or a material “play-land,” “Gentleman’s Club” or casino will impact the community at large. Thus, we understand that the inhabitants are acted upon by unforeseen forces that in the guise of “developmental prosperity” actually foment destruction as a by-product. The wild impulses the entertainment is designed to exploit for money overwhelm. Once the Supercade opens, entropy lopes in and takes over.
Feral is obviously a labor of love by the creative team: Amelia Bird (Scenic Design) Simon Wilkinson (Lighting Design) and Jim Harbourne (Original Music and Sound Design) and theri director Ross Mackay. Their innovative, human-friendly designs immediately convey the audience into the creators’ world of imagination. To its credit, the designers work to make the audience an integral part of the ongoing events as the camera angles move our vision from a distant perspective closer and closer into Dawn’s and Joe’s house to see their kitty cat and close to see the interiors of the various shops. The camera moves our vision into the beauty parlor, around the park and pier and into an adorableness that includes our watching a cute squirrel fed daily by the pastor of the town church.
Thus, as we identify with this mini corner of the universe, we are engaged and become concerned when the “Supercade” is built despite protest. Most probably money changes hands surreptitiously for the entertainment palace to be built. It is then the themes shift to the macrocosm as we consider what has transpired in the last 10 years almost exponentially along waterfronts and elsewhere.
Such displacing, nefarious development is happening in too many cities and towns across the globe. Those who have the most to lose are overcome by those who have the money and power to do what they want and not be held accountable for the damages. Indeed, though it is not clear in this production, most developers live in their own bucolic paradise surrounded by three-acres, with security teams, gates and high walls to keep out the “riff-raff” whom they prey upon to fund their selfishness, the “riff-raff” being these townspeople who just want to live life with some modicum of happiness..
Feral is imaginative, particular and profound if not disconcerting. The creators’ process is complicated but it delivers a simple metaphor of our times in identifiable human terms. Bravo to both the creative team listed above and the production team Andrew Gannon (Technical Diretor) and AEA Stage Manager (Alyssa K. Howard).
Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral runs for 50 minutes with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 9 June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Invincible currently at 59E59 Theaters is a tour de force written by Torben Betts, directed by Stephen Darcy with original direction by Christopher Harper. Presented by The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Productions, it is one of 59E59 Theaters Brits Off Broadway offerings this season.
Playwright Betts selects a mundane situation of neighbors being introduced to the neighborhood and spins it gyrating with turns that by the end of Act II career the audience into a ditch of shocking displacement and surprise. However, life cannot be all fun and games and ridicule, especially when there is a severe economic downturn and one is forced to downsize and relocate away from a tony London lifestyle as Emily and Oliver have to do. Indeed, we cannot anticipate what lurks around the corner of ourselves and especially behind the closed doors of our neighbors with whom we may have little in common.
The class divide of education and economics, conservative and liberal/radical Marxist views form the casual backdrop of a disastrous few meetings between two neighboring families in a North England suburb. We are first introduced to the educated Marxist Emily (Emily Bowker is superb as a high-strung feminist who peels away the layers to reveal a seething emotional depth) and liberal-minded, posh, near-pro cricket player Oliver (Alastair Whatley gives an exceptional performance as the initially weak-willed, accommodating partner) as they argue about not getting married.
Emily abhors bourgeois, middle-class mores that stultify relationships. She will not even consider pleasing Oliver’s sickly mother before she dies. Their assumptions that solidify the basis of their rant are largely humorous. However, Betts injects enough clues for us to eventually realize that Emily’s fears are more than Marxist chic and she is attempting to deal with inner guilt and pressure. The seemingly good-natured, innocent-looking Oliver, who has pedaled along beside her for four years keeping his mother in anticipation of their marriage has grown weary of making excuses. We find their exchange ironic in the extreme; usually the woman wants the big marriage and party. This is not who Emily is and once more, though his mother would be happy to see them married before she dies in a few months, she will not get her dying wish because of Emily’s strident inflexibility.
On the contrary, their neighborly couple the sexy, uneducated Dawn (Elizabeth Boag in a stunning portrayal of developing emotional cave-ins) and boorish, football-lover and postman Alan (Graeme Brookes is the believable, noxious lout whose kindness and love sustain and comfort) appear as if they rushed to embrace the cultural folkways of marriage, children, a family lifestyle so they could follow their parents unthinkingly into the grave. The couples could not be more disparate, and as Alan proclaims his love for his favorite football team and beer, we understand that Dawn and Alan are apparently shallow flag waving conservatives who mindlessly uphold blue-collar assumptions and chase them down with “bring their own” beer, when Oliver and Emily tell them they eschew alcohol and have none to offer.
Betts, the director and actors unfold the fireworks gradually. They also drop lightning bolts upon us when we least expect it. The arc of the play develops keeping the tensions fluid and random. We are not privy to the usual rants of liberal vs. conservative. The couples attempt to be neighborly by avoiding dangerous subjects. And the playwright stays away from conservative cant, though in the first part of the play, Emily’s Marxist diatribe to back off Oliver’s marriage plans for his mom’s happiness is funny.
When the couples face off against each other with awkward friendliness during a pleasant evening, the divisions between their differences of education and lifestyles creep forward. Underneath are boiling emotions in both families when the characters drive toward each other to reveal their passions. For Alan, it is his cat Vince (Invincible) whom Emily and Dawn dislike, Emily principally because the cat is a killer and no creature is safe in Vince’s dominion which is everywhere. Talkative Alan also discusses his paintings which are hysterically child-like and so amateurish, we wonder why he bothers not to take the painting lessons he sorely needs. However, he believes the paintings of Vince are special.
We know the first dive into the ditch cannot be prevented when Alan persists in his demands that the talented Emily (her paintings have been priced at around one thousand pounds), provide her true opinion of his work which he proudly shows as we cringe, albeit with laughter. After coaxing her, Emily gives her critique which is hysterical. The loutish, jabbering Alan quiets himself into a sulk and his ire reveals an annoyance that runs deeper as he attempts to defend the great sensitivity behind his awful work.
It is a mistake that Oliver attempts to defend Alan. Emily explodes about the importance of truth and their waste of an evening of banal conversation instead of discussing the “Western powers behaving like psychopaths, forever sending misguided, ignorant soldiers to murder innocent civilians in illegal wars!”
Alan and Dawn’s son is doing just that and the remainder of the evening drills out the undercurrents which have divided the couples all along. Alan defends their son’s heroism to protect their freedoms so Emily can “paint her pictures and have all her clever opinions.” In effect he is lambasting her for being chic, unthinking and hypocritical. Dawn tells her she needs to “have a quiet little think about that.” As Dawn and Alan storm out, Emily, Oliver and the audience are left to the silence of their own souls.
Betts has initialized the themes by the end of Act I which he completes in Act II. Because of their night with Alan and Dawn and Dawn’s parting remarks, Emily and Oliver confront their griefs. It is then we discover why Emily and Oliver have sworn off liquor, why Emily has immersed herself in radical politics and why Oliver puts up with her mood swings, stresses and odd demands. It is then we understand that Dawn is unhappy with who she is and how she measures up. One night with Emily and Oliver has transformed Alan’s and her awareness of self and goals.
The exchange has been revolutionary; the characters’ personalities change by the play’s conclusion. There has been a convergence. Which couple benefits the most is debatable. Betts reveals that Oliver and Emily have the makings of the wealthy, sleazy and corrupt conservatives they used to decry. Alan and Dawn have been devastated into perhaps turning from the warmongering they once embraced and sent their son off to partake of. And as the latter two confront a devastation, we can identify with the love, forgiveness and care that Alan, whom we once deemed loutish, gives Dawn. Heroism comes in many shapes and forms, sometimes initially unappealing ones.
Betts has manipulated us cleverly to look at our own humanity and the humanity of those with class perspectives and behaviors precisely counter to our own. Themes of flexibility, empathy and tolerance are in the forefront of this production which reveals the fickleness of human nature when circumstances change. Stephen Darcy’s excellent direction and the tremendously effecting performances by the actors in this strong ensemble piece, reveal Invincible to be a complex, thought-provoking production which examines the best and worst of our prejudices and attitudes and the strength of human character required to be truly invincible in the face of loss.
You can see Invincible which has one intermission and is running at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street) until 2 July. You can pick up tickets if you click HERE.