I am used to Dell'Arteians eviscerating themselves for audiences to use their organs as runes to divine a work's meaning — the absurdity of characters so realized that overly grand gestures are not only normal but expected as the given circumstances of the piece. Nightlight, the newest devised Dell'Arte work is neither. Nor does it have to be. Rather, it is a visually stunning work that leaves viewers of all ages with things to explore and inspiration to examine from what institutions our idea of theater stems.
It is highly unusual for post-production conversations with creators and actors to sway my bull-headed opinions on pieces. Yet, Maubricien Freedone, Abby Maguire, Sabrina Silva and Tamekia Jackson (creators, writers and performers of Nightlight) managed just that.
Over the river and through the woods on icy and windy roads, I found myself surrounded with happily feral children and their outnumbered parents in the Burnt Ranch School gym. This was only one of the many satellite shows of this production that weaves three stories around the exploration of light and dark in the winter solstice. It was easy, given the setting and audience, to prepare myself for the overly dramatized and in-your-face style that Dell'Arte presents so well as children's theater. This production, though, strategically doesn't deliver that.
I was sternly reminded by the cast that there are myriad ways to present children's theatre. Though I approached the players believing the piece was ineffective and not quite to the standards of the Dell'Arte version of physical theater, I left them rethinking the parameters I used to watch the show. In retrospect, their style and presentation was not only valid but strategic; the cast and resulting show pick up where previous masters classes left off, having questioned Dell'Arte's commitment to inclusivity and diversity while it doubled down on old traditions.
Interestingly, one does not have to explore these depths to enjoy the show. In fact, it is a simple production that is as astoundingly beautiful visually as it is conceptually meant for both children and adults. The devised work is a collection of short pieces surrounding the theme of light and dark and was influenced by cultural stories from people around the world. It is a montage of interpretive movements done with shadow, commentaries on modern human addictions and a reinterpreted Wiyot story of the moon, the sun and time.
Freedone and Jackson each create a stunning display of fluidity in motion in their respective pieces that flank a reimagined story of Ta'm (sun, moon and clock in the Wiyot language of Soulatluk) in this three-part one-act play. Freedone's piece is the opening, which does a good job in capturing the imagination of the audience with shadow work that compliments their physicality (or drives/oppresses it, depending on your perspective). The momentum generated is what is needed to propel the cast toward the bulk of the work in the second part. Though here the piece becomes a bit too preachy in its commentary on technology addiction, environmentalism and patriarchy, the plot, stretching to incorporate these concepts, is nearly able to mask the problem. Unfortunately, the muddling of the venue's gym acoustics and the unfortunate swallowing of the cast's enunciation proved difficulties. That will undoubtedly be rectified upon their return to the Carlo Theatre this closing weekend.
Maguire and Silva round out the cast nicely. Particularly memorable is Maguire's Pat Trarky and their tricky characterization as both a shadow puppet and a physical presence on stage. They do a good job of physical expression and could continue to explore the differences in presenting the same character in both media to create another dynamic in the piece. Likewise, Silva's enchanting singing voice is beautiful and could be used more to explore the dynamic range of her speaking voice and center more of her characters.
The night I saw the show, there were apparently many technical difficulties (though I was not aware of a single one) and whoever is responsible for the shadow work needs to be specifically credited. Perhaps Tamekia Jackson as shadows and projection effects, Emma Dobbins as lighting designer, shadow puppet designer Jaiden Clark or shadow puppetry by Jordan Dobbins. (There are a lot of names and titles in the program for this production.) This cast and the joy and comradery with which they share their work connects in a different way than other Dell'Arte productions I have experienced, and it feels like accolades should primarily go to them. In its return to the Carlo and its full technical potential, I suggest you see this show once to absorb its beauty and twice to realize its depth.
Tiggerbouncer Custodio (he/she/they) is an empowered queer Indigenous Filipino artist whose works have been seen on Humboldt stages and elsewhere.