Delightful 'Invitations to Heaven' reflects on a family's troubled past

April 19, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

One of the first questions raised by "Invitations to Heaven (Questions of a Jewish Child)" is why heaven is included in the title. Heaven, as the audience learns, is not a Jewish concept. And yet, much of this puppet-theater work, produced by the Vermont based Eric Bass/Sandglass Theater, takes place in heaven, with flashbacks to earth.

Heaven turns out to serve several purposes. With puppets of his grandparents poised at the gates, heaven provides the format in which Mr. Bass raises serious questions about his roots.

In a lighter vein, heaven also gives Mr. Bass and his fellow performer, Evan Harlan, an opportunity to have a little fun parading around as angels with tiny cotton clouds stuck on their caps and miniature wings attached to the backs of their suspenders.

Having fun is no small part of this tender, charming piece, currently at the Theatre Project and scheduled to be part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's prestigious Next Wave Festival in the fall.

A blend of live performance, Yiddish music, puppetry and references to the celebration of Passover, "Invitations to Heaven" balances whimsy with the weightier issue of coming to terms with the past.

Specifically, Mr. Bass -- who also portrays himself -- is attempting to come to terms with the troubled marriage of his grandparents, Polish Jewish immigrants who were married in an arranged ceremony in the old country.

Although the strain in their household is palpable, a sense of delight also pervades the piece, owing largely to Mr. Bass' deliberately self-conscious performing style.

His grandparents are represented by elderly, stern-looking puppets, manipulated without tricks or artifice. The lights are up when he operates the puppets, and we hear him speak and see his lips move when they talk.

When the puppets dance, the effect is accomplished simply by having Mr. Bass dance while holding them. And one of the work's best jokes comes when the puppets repeatedly ask Mr. Bass why he's always standing behind them.

At the end, after the grandmother's death, the grandfather realizes she didn't make his life miserable -- she made it possible. And, without getting too syrupy, the joy of the piece washes over the conflict that has come before.

Incidentally, Mr. Bass' co-performer, Mr. Harlan, doesn't merely act as an auxiliary angel and puppeteer. More importantly, he accompanies much of the work on the accordion. And although he never speaks, his music -- composed and adapted from Jewish melodies by Alan Bern -- sets the tone for this wonderfully eclectic, evocative work.

Invitations to Heaven'

When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays matinees at 3 p.m. Through April 28.

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

Tickets: $10-$16.

Call: 752-8558.

*** 1/2

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