Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This is their first new work since 2018's delightful Neighborhood of Make Believe, which used the imaginative world created by Fred Rogers–Mister Rogers, if you will–on children's television as its jumping off point. That focus seemed quite a bit more contained, and certainly cheerier, than the notion of mass extinction. Rest assured, the show does not end in an apocalyptic vision, certainly a relief to the children in the sold-out Avalon Theatre.
The play began with a stretch of earth descending down from the top of the theater, a rolling swath of green ground, really a marvelous image to behold. From beneath this ground, puppeteers in the guise of dinosaurs reached up and created a landscape, the world they would inhabit, until the unthinkable happened–the impact believed to cause mass extinction, sent hurling across the auditorium's space. The show had just begun, and this seemed to be the end, but of course, that wasn't so. What we found was that "mass extinction" did not mean the end, but a transportation of the creatures from this earth into another realm, another dimension where they would grow fully into their own true nature. Three dinosaurs named Odessa, Kairos and Dilop strutted down a center ramp through the auditorium and onto the stage (their elaborate costumes inhabited by human actors), as their new selves, in new surroundings. They had become Dino queens, free to express their feelings and their fabulous identities–which were rampantly sensual, hemmed in neither by gender nor the code of survival. They exuded confidence, authenticity and love.
Poof, we were back to the place where we started, that plot of earth suddenly occupied by South Minneapolis. Two queer teenagers, Demetrius (Baki Baki Baki) and Fahari (AJ Ashe Jaafaru), were in the park and discovered a portal to this other dimension. The two had felt like outsiders because of their affection for one another and their compassion for all life on earth. They were at first terrified to see the dinosaurs–made to appear gigantic with the always brilliant use of puppets, masks, and the simplest of effects. A hilarious chase scene followed, staged by puppets and humans alike, taking place on every one of the theater's walls. In the end, Demetrius and Fahari realized these creatures were not to be feared, and in fact, had much to teach them.
The show incorporated a great deal of music, played with zest by co-music director Taylor Johnson, who sometimes entered while commenting on the narrative or the characters' choices. At one juncture he had a solo vocal, though singing did not seem to be his primary talent. There was also a great deal of dance, with several extended solo dance sequences by Jaafaru and by Demetrius McClendon aka ImagineJoy as the Dino-queen Kairos. Their dances were so spectacular that one wondered if they were cast because they were able to measure up to those requirements, or the show evolved around their extraordinary talents. Either way, they were a thrill to behold and, to add to the satisfaction, the dances actually had meaning within the context of the show.
I admit, extracting meaning from the show was not always the case. Much as I enjoyed every moment of The Impact Theory of Mass Extinction, there were stretches where I was uncertain what a character was getting at, or the point of certain actions, or how a turn of events came to be. Mind you, I never for a second was less than greatly entertained, even enchanted, but I had the sense that the playwright, Junauda Petrus-Nasah, had pithy ideas in mind, couched within all the imaginative and comedic and outrageous and sensuous stage business, and for much of the show those ideas eluded me.
Still, constant enchantment is no small thing, and The Impact Theory of Mass Extinction delivered that. In addition to Jaafaru and McClendon, I was especially impressed by Queen Serena Black as the Dino-queen Odessa, while Baki Baki Baki as Demetrius and Alex Yang as the Dino-queen Dilop were delightful. Harry Waters Jr.'s direction kept things moving swiftly, transitioning from one setting to another, and between human and puppet actors, with agility.
Puppeteer and puppet designer Steve Ackerman was (with Petrus-Nash) one of the shows' co-creators, and his genius shown through in the way puppets, masks and humans were thoroughly integrated in presentation. Ackerman also is credited as set designer and, to be honest, so many elements of the set could be manipulated, puppet-like, that the set itself also became a dynamic part of the show, and not merely background. Ackerman and five other puppeteers brought their progeny to enchanting life. Heidi Eckwall's lighting design and Orren Fen's costume designs added their own sheen of imagination to the production.
Heart of the Beast has been known to bring back popular productions, and I hope this one makes a return visit, perhaps with some work to tighten and clarify the narrative. The show's exuberant ending, a shout-out to the power of love and of being true to one's own nature, will always be welcome, as it was by the cheering audience with whom I shared this joyous–if at times perplexing–experience.
The Impact Theory of Mass Extinction played at the Avalon Theater June 16, 2022 - June 26, 2022. 1500 Lake Street E., Minneapolis MN. For information about In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, please visit www.hobt.org.
Playwright: Junauda Petrus-Nasah; Director: Harry Waters Jr.; Music Co-Directors: Mj/booboo and Taylor Johnson; Puppet and Set Design: Steve Ackerman; Costume Design, Assistant Puppet and Set Design: Orren Fen; Assistant Costume Designer: Anders Nielse; Lighting Design: Heidi Eckwall; Shadow Puppet and Animation Design: Alex Young, Erica Warren, Norah Solorzano; Illustrators: Erica Warren and Steve Ackerman; Stage Manager: Ches Cipriano.
Cast: Baki Baki Baki (Demetrius), Queen Serena Black (Odessa), AJ Ashe Jaafaru (Fahari), Demetrius McClendon aka ImagineJoy (Kairos), Alex Yang (Dilop). Puppeteers: Steve Ackerman, Finley Anderson-Newton, Stayci Bell, Orren Fen, Erica Warren, Alex Young.