When most of us look back on America’s history, we like to remember the good times: the victories, the discoveries, the stories of heroes and brave men. There is, however, an importance in never forgetting the darker moments that make up our past, those shadowy corners that we dare not even whisper about in mixed company. Trouble Puppet Theatre have taken it upon themselves to shine a light into one of those dusky corners with their latest, the solemn, soul-rending puppet operetta, American Blood Song, an exploration of the trials and torments of the members of the Donner Party, an infamous group of settlers forced into extreme conditions thanks to some bad advice and stubborn leadership. What writer/director Connor Hopkins and his crew create, however, is not the familiar story we know, as he twists it, to tell his story from mostly the mouths of the women of this doomed company, showing us the story of bright-eyed daughters, abused wives, and overtaxed mothers, and how they are led astray by the actions of over-confident men.
Before walking into the performance, one can be forgiven for thinking puppetry and tragedy seem like an ill-fitting marriage. Particularly in American culture, puppetry is seen as an art form for children, full of joy and whimsy, and American Blood Song is about as far from whimsical as one can imagine, a descent into despair and decay, an exploration of the darkest sides of the human experience. With live actors, the whole exercise would become too extreme, but by making these characters puppets, there’s a certain remove that makes it more palatable. This is not to say that American Blood Song is an easy watch, far from it. We see mutilation, cannibalism, murder, and the death of children and animals, and even in the form of puppets, it can be an extreme journey. As you’re reading this, you can probably imagine that, if handled poorly, this could all become a tad bit silly, but luckily, one thing that saves this from going in the wrong direction is the emotionally honest performances.
One often forgets the importance of the human element in a puppet performance, but Trouble Puppet has always made sure to have the best talents behind the wheel, and this has never been so evident than in this production. Even with the beautiful, elaborate puppets and landscapes the company create, it’s the skilled stable of actors that provide the real heart of the characters. The detailed features and gorgeous costumes of Tamzene Donner go some way in telling her story, but without Caroline Reck’s soulful delivery, without her soft, silky, plaintive voice carrying us through, the play would hit with far less power; the horrible events that befall the 13-year-old Virginia Reed would not carry the same weight without Marina DeYoe-Pedraza injecting a playful, awkward innocence into the her voice; without Zac Crofford’s soaring baritone, Lansford Hastings would not come off as half as effective a villain; and William Eddy’s reluctant heroism would not hit such impressive heights without the strong, stalwart voice of Zac Carr behind the scenes. Each of these performers, and the handful of others talented actors, create crystalline moments of pure emotion that stick in your mind, lingering with you in the days to follow.
One mustn’t think that American Blood Song is without its moments of levity, however. There are few writers with a more keen ear for gallows humor than Connor Hopkins, and in this production, he and his company are able to bring in moments of humor while still being respectful to these historical figures. In particular one of the earliest scenes, involving a revolving door of shysters trying to steal the money of gullible travelers, is one of the funnier moments I’ve seen this year. Even in the melancholy moments that make up the latter half of the operetta, there’s time for a cheeky little ditty about cannibalism that helps to lighten the mood. It’s still a harsh road through American Blood Song, but Hopkins makes sure that there are still chances to crack a smile from time to time, even if the times are tough.
We mustn’t forget the other important ingredient in making American Blood Song work so well: Mother Falcon. Even in the most triumphant of songs (such as the recurring tune, “America”), there’s a sense of unease, of something being not quite right, a soft underlying rumble of cello, the quick, sudden quirk of an electric guitar that keeps us on our toes. The entire score brims with sorrowful passages, a delicate clarinet or a mournful sax drifting softly across the audience, wrapping us within the cold, the despair, and holding us fast. With just three performers, Mother Falcon creates an entire sonic landscape, helping to give texture and dimension to this immersive, sorrowful puppet landscape we find ourselves in throughout the later stages of the piece.
American Blood Song can be a difficult sit, and it’s probably not for everyone, but as I was leaving, I was reminded why I go to the theatre. While many plays are entertaining, and still others present an intriguing look at modern life, the best plays are the ones that leave you contemplating something within yourself. Something about “American Blood Song” changes you, seeps into your blood and grasps your bones, leaving you shaken in a way that upsets you as you’re sitting in bed at night. By breathing life into these puppets, Connor Hopkins and company have animated these long-dead memories, turning them into living, breathing figures, not so different from ourselves, and if this wilderness, which tests the limits of human extremity, could turn these people into such monsters, what would it take for that same change to happen to you, or to me?
American Blood Song is playing through August 17th at the Vortex Repertory Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit troublepuppet.com.
Photos courtesy of Andrew Stalick