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Small Acts of Daring Invention

A multimedia show Inspired by the life and work of photographer Dare Wright, author of “The Lonely Doll.”

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Amanda Carl, Andrew Murdock, Takemi Kitamura, Simon Catillon, Tracy Weller, and Ariel Lauryn in a scene from Weller’s “Small Acts of Daring Invention” at HERE (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

There are times in everyone’s life when they question the nature of reality, testing the idea of the real and unreal. These moments explore what happens when one transitions from one state of being to another or possibly non-being. It is, in a sense, a rite of passage. These moments are called liminality, a term that embraces the ambiguity or disorientation between states of being. The writer Rod Serling used this concept in his television series “The Twilight Zone.”

Small Acts of Daring Invention, written and conceived by Mason Holdings’ founder and artistic director Tracy Weller, is a theatrical realization of a liminal space or twilight zone. The show is inspired by the life and work of photographer Dare Wright, author of the children’s book series The Lonely Doll. It can also be said that this show is a characterization of what the author may have experienced as she moved from life to death by dramatizing a liminal experience related to her work as a writer and photographer.

If the play’s goal is to pay homage to Wright, it misses the mark for most audiences. If one is unfamiliar with Wright, most of the symbols revealed in the play will not be understood in terms of her life story. This fact is not necessarily a distraction from the action since the play provides a suitable level of mystery, imagination, and surprise, resulting in an entertaining but possibly unsettling experience, starting with the opening and carrying through to a satisfactory ending, all without spoken dialogue.

Tracy Weller as Dare Wright in a scene from Weller’s “Small Acts of Daring Invention” at HERE (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

It is hard to categorize this show as a particular type of theatrical production. It has elements of mime and dance but doesn’t fit into either category. It does seem to fit into a category of symphonic music called a tone poem, orchestral music illustrating or evoking the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other source. In this case, Dare Wright’s life is that of a writer of a series of children’s books.

Weller’s use of puppets, props, lighting, sound, and projections is beautifully realized in the imagined journey of Wright’s transition from life to death. Kristjan Thor’s direction skillfully weaves all of the elements of the production, which includes five puppeteers, called Shepherds of Memory in the script, into a seamless choreography of sight and sound. It is a production that challenges an audience to emotionally engage with the action, similar to how one experiences dance or symphonies.

As the audience enters the performance area, they see what appears to be a storage room with dirty windows flanked by two doors on the left-hand wall of the stage. Arrayed across the stage is a collection of objects covered with dirty cloth dust covers, almost like shrouds. Outside the dirty windows and the windowed doors, a figure moves, going from door to door, trying to peer into the room through the windows. As she tries to open the doors, the downstage door won’t open, but the upstage door does, and an old woman dressed in a nightgown, wearing a raincoat and folding a rainhat enters. She is pale with a flat facial expression. She seems confused as she looks around the room, trying to figure out where she is and what all the covered objects represent.

Simon Catillon, Tracy Weller, Ariel Lauryn, Amanda Carl, Andrew Murdock and Takemi Kitamura in a scene from Weller’s “Small Acts of Daring Invention” at HERE (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

She moves around the objects in the room and begins to explore what is hidden beneath the covering shrouds. As she does this, five people dressed in white jumpsuits appear at different places on the set. These people are the puppeteers who will expertly bring three key objects to life: two teddy bears and a doll. These objects are the primary characters of Wright’s book The Lonely Doll, and will play the central role in guiding her through this liminal experience.

Each of the objects she uncovers impacts her in either recognition or mystery. When she finds an old typewriter, she does not know what to make of it, so she places it on its side on a small table. The typewriter is a clue to the unfolding mystery of this experience. Each object uncovered adds an additional element to the unraveling of the mystery she is in the midst of solving.

When she first uncovers the bears and doll, she doesn’t know what to make of them, but something about them resonates with her, so she carefully sits them around herself. The doll is missing an arm and leg, so the woman takes a needle and thread to fix the doll. At this point, the puppeteers take over the objects and give them life, at first only when the woman is not looking at them, and later, after the woman recognizes what the bears and doll represent, they begin to interact with her.

Tracy Weller as Dare Wright in a scene from Tracy Weller’s “Small Acts of Daring Invention” at HERE (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

The bears and doll will be the woman’s guides and support as she continues her exploration of the space. Each step of the unwrapping of the objects in the room brings more understanding to her, reveals to the audience aspects of her location, and provides insight into her character. The large objects are shown as library bookshelves. A cabinet is a card file. The small tables and chairs are a children’s section. Step-by-step clues are provided to the woman as to who she is based on who she was when she created the bears and the doll.

It is not always clear what the individual objects represent in the woman’s life, such as a camera or a cigarette case. Still, gradually, a behavior change appears with the woman. The bears and doll help her put on makeup and a wig. They help her discover small objects hidden in small spaces throughout the room. At the same time, projections of the woman at different ages and places are projected on the remaining shrouds. The discoveries continue until the woman realizes who she is and where she is, and at that moment, she goes to the downstage door. It opens, and as she steps through, the lights go out, and the show ends.

The puppets, designed by Simple Mischief Studio, are a critical element in this play. The Shepherds of Memory (puppeteers) are masterful in their actions, moving with balletic precision as they seamlessly blend into the action and manipulate each of the puppets. Spencer Lott skillfully directs them in conjunction with Thor’s overall direction. These skilled puppeteers are Andrew Murdock, Ariel Lauryn, Takemi Kitamura, Simon Catillon and Amanda Glynn Card.

Takemi Kitamura, Amanda Carl, Andew Murdock, Ariel Lauryn, Simon Catillon and Tracy Weller in a scene from Weller’s “Small Acts of Daring Invention” at HERE (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Christopher and Justin Swader’s scenic design masterfully sets the tone for the play, which is strongly supported by Daisy Long’s lighting design and Phil Carluzzo’s sound design and original music. Yana Biryükova’s projections add essential elements to the story as the mystery is unraveled. As props designer, Patricia Marjorie solidly delivers the objects central to the story’s compelling telling.

Small Acts of Daring Invention (through June 1, 2024)

SubletSeries@HERE

Mason Holdings

HERE Arts Center , 145 Sixth Avenue,  in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.masonholdings.org

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

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About Scotty Bennett (80 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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