"Home Family God Country Flag: An American Puppet Epic" -- the title of the Ninth Street Theater's production at the Theatre Project -- sounds ponderous and pretentious. And although the show does redeem itself, at first it is just that.
In the opening scene, shadow puppets interact with projections of old family photographs on a screen while artistic director Joanne Schultz delivers this vague but serious-sounding intonation: "All of us are Americans, but we are not all Americans, we are some Americans. . . . Here are some stories about some people who answer a little bit about who we are."
But before long, the nine performers are using techniques so diverse, they are the theatrical embodiment of the American melting pot. They play musical instruments including a tea kettle that serves as a drum; dual recorders (played simultaneously by a single musician); a cello made partly from a carton; and the ubiquitous synthesizer. In addition to shadow puppets, there's a nearly life-sized ventriloquist's dummy representing an immigrant grandmother, as well as live performances by the actors themselves.
And by the end of two acts of increasing imagination and whimsy, this collaborative piece works the same spell on you that it does on its immigrant characters: It reinforces your belief in America as a land in which life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are truly possible.
A program note informs us that the script interweaves stories from three generations of company members' families. The story lines tend to blur, but some of the effects are so lovely, it almost doesn't matter.
In a scene in the old country, a daughter leaving her father's home is represented by the Chagall-like image of a shadow puppet flying upward. Much later, when the character of the grandmother dies, two puppeteers propel the ventriloquist's dummy on a similar flight, then fold its hands peacefully across its chest.
Formed in 1979 by New York-based members of the Bread and Puppet Theater, the Ninth Street Theater is at its best when it doesn't take itself too seriously. You can catch some of its more overtly political humor before each performance in the Theatre Project lobby, where company members are presenting "The History of Oil." A short street-theater piece with charts, whistles and song, it is even further proof of the group's varied talents.
'Home Family God
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 31.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.