'Memories, Dreams and Illusions'
When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 3 p.m. Through June 16.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
An Argentinean actor wearing the makeup of a stock character from Italian Commedia dell'Arte dances to percussive
African rhythms. Three continents in one fell swoop. You don't get much more multicultural than that.
The latest offering at the Theatre Project, "Memories, Dreams and Illusions" is the work of an Argentinean troupe called Diablomundo. Mostly, it looks like street theater from the 1960s.
And oh yes, there are also puppets. In fact, the puppets are the best thing about "Memories, Dreams and Illusions," which tends to be simplistic politically and thematically.
Freedom is good; we can work together for a better world; stand up for what you believe. That's the gist of the show, and it comes across loud and clear, despite the extremely thick accents of the five performers -- and the fact that almost half of the hour-long piece is performed in Spanish.
But back to the puppets. Some of these life-size and larger constructions depict ancestors of the central character, a clown named Fenelon, portrayed by Marcelo Frasca, made up to look like Pierrot.
First, we meet Fenelon's father, a clown who sells stories -- and presumably dreams -- to working-class passengers on a streetcar. The father, passengers and streetcar driver are represented by puppets whose loose-fabric bodies are suspended like banners from stick-like shoulders that support three-dimensional heads operated on rods. Despite a policeman's accusations of disturbing the peace, the clown teaches the passengers to fly; in the show's loveliest effect, they look virtually airborne as their diaphanous bodies flutter from side to side.
Next, we are introduced to Fenelon's grandfather, who is part of a Commedia dell'Arte troupe. In this case, the puppets are attached to the puppeteers' waists, almost like costumes. Once again, the theme is the artistic spirit sparring with authority.
Going back another generation, Fenelon's great-grandfather appears -- a wizard who insists the earth is round, ignoring the threats of his closed-minded queen. The puppeteer operating the wizard is completely covered by the puppet's cloak. When the wizard is executed for refusing to recant, the puppeteer sheds the cloak; one of the show's most evocative moments occurs when the wizard's limp cloak and bobbing head are carried off stage.
The final scene is a circus-like boxing match between Fenelon and a snout-faced character representing "Perfect Failure." I won't give away the outcome, except to say that Fenelon receives some last-minute support from the spirits of his ancestors.
"Memories, Dreams and Illusions" is part of Diablomundo's 13-week residency at the Theatre Project, during which the company is developing a new work, "Salamanca," scheduled to premiere in July at Towson State's Maryland Arts Festival. It'll be a pleasure to see more of this talented puppetry, particularly if it is accompanied by expanded themes and more intelligible dialogue.