Ralph Lee’s Mettawee River Company was scheduled for a regrettably short run at the Outdoor Garden of the majestic Cathedral of St. John the Divine up in Morningside Heights. The Ringdove, derived from the Panchantantra, an ancient Sanskrit collection of stories about animals and their interrelated adventures, was dramatized with exquisite care by playwrights George Sand, with revisions and new material by Kristine Haruna Lee, and directed with a joyful touch by Lee, himself, who also created the vivid sets.
Ringdove was to be performed outdoors in the Cathedral’s lovely garden, but ill weather forced the performance I attended indoors into the massive Synod House which provided ample space. The garden might have offered an ambiance complementing the story, but Lee’s production was sufficient in itself to impress.
Two brilliant musicians, John Ling (vibraphone and percussion) and Ed RosenBerg III (alto saxophone and hammered dulcimer) produced not only beautifully evocative music (composed by Neal Kirkwood) but also an ingeniously appropriate soundtrack that brought the story to life. The characters also often broke out into hauntingly harmonized songs.
The story involved a crow who ring-leads the other characters—a rat, a turtle and a gazelle—through a number of adventures. These and others were played by actor/singer/dancer/puppeteers Maia Karo, Greg Manley, Claire Moodey, Jared Thompson and Merlin Whitehawk who told a story filled with meaning in this age of over-hunting and climate change.
Ringdove opened with a flight of white birds—actually dozens of them attached to long poles so deftly handled that the illusion of an overhead flock was complete. Each of the four main animal characters was portrayed by a human in an evocative headdress and a miniature, doll-like version.
The Crow (Maia Karo) encountered a nervous Rat (Greg Manley) and gave it a feather to decorate his den. They then flew off to visit the Turtle (Merlin Whitehawk). (The image of the miniature Crow flying about with a singing miniature Rat hanging off it was delightful.) The Turtle is smart, but slow, even paraphrasing Shelley.
A slightly menacing human Hunter (Jared Thompson) and a bounding Gazelle (Claire Moodey) filled out the character list, their peregrinations, discussions, songs, journeys and dilemmas unfolding with imagination and skill.
What raised The Ringdove above mere creative story-time theater was the exquisite artwork and detailed performances. The perfect, colorful costumes (by Casey Compton) that evoked everything from Greek myths to desert Bedouins were topped by Lee’s brilliant mask heads. Lee also supplied the scenery which included ephemerally leaved trees and a turtle pond that was a witty work of high art, a microcosmic version of a tiny ecosystem. Lee and his colleagues created an oasis pleasant to the eyes and ears, all the while teaching a moral about the interconnectedness of all living things.
The Mettawee River Company, for all its rural, folk pretensions, is surprisingly based in New York City. The infrequent performances should be sought out, if for no other reason than to escape a fraught New York City.
The Ringdove (September 6-8, 2019)
Mettawee River Company
The Outdoor Garden of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in Manhattan
Tickets available at the performance site.
For information, call 212-929-4777
Running time: 55 minutes without an intermission