Each May, the graduating students in Dell'Arte's MFA program in ensemble-based physical theatre put the sum of their talents and training on the stage at the Carlo Theatre in Blue Lake for the Thesis Festival. For anyone (this reviewer included) who has watched these students develop their skills and talents over the three years of the program, there is a real sense of fulfilment in seeing the culmination of that work in writing, design, direction, lighting, sound, costume and, of course, performance. Students will perform four projects this year, two on each of two alternating evenings, by students from six different countries: the US, Greece, India, Zimbabwe, Sweden and Denmark.
What Have You Done, Eli? (Thursday and Saturday) explores the radically different ways in which individuals process death and reclaim their lives. The mother who has lost her husband (Zafiria Dimitropoulou) retreats into a world of dreams inhabited by a fantastical creature that seems to be leading her out of the darkness. Her son Eli (Becca Finney), in his struggle to find his place in the new family landscape, finds himself testing boundaries with Bumbles the Bear (Tushar Mathew), who turns out to be the fantastical creature of his mother's dreams. As the two worlds intertwine and the players redefine themselves, one finds peace while another descends into madness, precipitating a shocking event that ends the life of the third. Impassioned and relatable performances by all three actors deliver a powerful message of survival.
Broken! (Thursday and Saturday) also explores the theme of loss, justice and redemption, but through a very different lens. Co-created by Everson Ndlovu and Tafadzwa "Bob" Mutumbi, Broken! brings together the worlds of Zimbabwean ritual tradition and Greek tragedy as a mother and child are lost and the grieving father (Mutumbi) returns to his village in search of a reason. Can he conjure up an answer from his dead father's ashes? Does his uncle (Ndlovu) hold the key to a series of mysterious afflictions? Is there a curse on the family? Can broken souls be mended by healing hearts and minds? Through music and dance, Mutumbi and Ndlovu guide us on a roller-coaster journey from grief to acceptance — all the while longing for "another life in another time." Catch this one again during the upcoming Mad River Festival.
We Are Having a Nice Time (Friday and Sunday) is the family reunion from hell. Sophia (Jeesun Choi) is the chain-smoking, booze-sodden matriarch who refuses to be separated from her deceased husband's ashes. Barney (Lucius Robinson) is celebrating his 60th birthday with catering assistance from sister Bernice (a fabulously bewigged Anne Kjaer Waehrens) and Bernice's son George (Taylor Brewerton in a disturbing adult-child performance), when six-years-absent Charlie (Kevin Duvall), Bernice's older (and favorite) son shows up. Where has he been? How did Viola's husband really die? What happened to Barney's fishing poles? And why does no one ever leave the house? (The crow knows ... .) As Barney notes ruefully, "some days you just want a big Mack truck to come through the wall and put an end to the suffering."
The final project, Prose Poem, leaves narrative behind and opens up the world of three characters (Emilia Bjork, Grayson Bradshaw, and Jenny Lamb) for the audience to take their own journeys of awakening. I came away from the performance with the impression of three people lost in space and slowly regaining consciousness after a long separation from reality, feeling their way toward relearning sensations and the interplay of human emotions; your take-away might be completely different. That's the power of the piece and the skill of the creators — abstract theatre is challenging to pull off well, but these three succeed in creating a universe that everyone can shape to their own reality. A sense of sadness, somehow buoyed by comfort, pervades the players' intricate dance of wonderment and despair.
The students are, of course, supported in the creation and execution of their projects by the teachers and staff of Dell'Arte International. Special acknowledgements are due to Michael "Spike" Foster, lighting designer extraordinaire, Technical Director and construction genius James Hildebrand and Production Queen Caitlin Volz.
All four projects are in different ways woven around love and loss, some tinged with sorrow, with a side of redemption or the lure of revenge. But they also carry a message of hope: If only we can find the positive in the negative, the light in the darkness, everything will balance out in the end. It is in their achievement of this balance that we can truly appreciate the work of these creator-performers; as they graduate from Dell'Arte, they have come to embody the company's mission: "International in scope, grounded in the natural living world, inspired by our non-urban setting, Dell'Arte International explores theatre making, theatre practice and theatre training for ourselves, the world and the future."