Tontlawald just opened at the EXIT, where the Cutting Ball Theater is in residence. The physicality and quality of motion exuded by the cast suggest that they’ve enjoyed an opportunity to live in these roles. Originally work-shopped in 2011, the work has been in production for several months, and its life at the Cutting Ball goes back several years before then. This extended duration provided the cast time to ripen into these roles – making the work like a perfectly ripe fruit, bursting the skin at this week’s opening for audience delectation.
Discussing plot risks inadvertently turning people away. All too often, I’ve dismissed a work because a poorly-written press release spinning a plot-based narrative failed to capture the essence of the work – only to have my heart stolen on opening night. Such could easily be the case here because Tontlawald is based upon an Estonian folk tale. Like other folk tales, it speaks to the archetypical experiences of good, evil, wicked mothers, and transformation. However, the performers transcend their own material through a cappella harmonies and startling physicality, bringing such authenticity and integrity to their material that the centrality of plot fades.
The work draws heavily from Jerzy Grotowsky’s notions of devised theatre in which artists work collaboratively without relying upon a script. All too often, this approach leads to academic, experimental works that lose the audience. However, nothing could be further from this with Tontlawald. Although a few slices of the action were perplexingly arbitrary (such as the scene in which a mic was suspended into a boot), they only served to pique audience curiosity. Overall, the piece held together beautifully, relying upon the physicality of the cast to propel the story forward even as they moved through the stage space.
Traditional dialogue was replaced with small bursts of poetry, alternated with long a capella passages. The song list was surprisingly diverse, including excerpts of Mozart’s Magic Flute and “Why Don’t You Fall in Love with Me?” by Al Lewis and Mabel Wayne. Regardless of title or genre, the group sounded unfailing like the Dzintars, the national Latvian woman’s chorus, whose 1989 CD of exquisite gems had similar intensity, focus and tenderness. The music so became the cast that they transcended their source material.
Although the cast had no weak links, Rebecca Frank and Marilet Martinez were particularly compelling. Both have a luminous stage presence that only heightens their seeming vulnerability.
Tontlawald will be at the EXIT theater through March 11. Despite the cramped seating at the EXIT, this show is well worth spending time with.
3.5 out of 5 stars (Sweet Stuff)
February 17th through March 11th
Created and devised by Page Rogers, Annie Paladino & Laura Arrington