Monday, August 14, 2006

Nutmeat: A Burlesque Fairytale

With each new flop, incompetent puppeteer Ramon Martinez pushes his family closer to starvation. The battle between quixotic idealism and the reality of failure mounts, as frustrated wife Mimi resorts to knitting dinner and their adolescent son Martín seeks solace in an anatomically correct Barbary organ...

This physical comedy from French-American troupe Sous Un Autre Angle is quite charming in a sad, slightly grotesque way, and so far has been my favorite Fringe show. Written by Megan Campisi with the three main actors, it tells the story of Ramon Martinez, a puppeteer not really worthy of the title, and his wife and son who are cowed and starving due to his insistence on continuing with the family profession which isn’t earning anything. He tries to stage fairytales, but something always goes wrong to ruin the show, and it’s quickly clear that the Martinez’ own story is the real fairytale – of the dark, anxious Grimm Brothers sort (though O. Henry’s semi-uplifting “Gift of the Magi” takes a bow too). It’s painful to listen to Caroline Reck play the wife through an ill-fitting pair of fake bad teeth, the songs of the android-like Barbary organ that the son falls in love with are headache-inducing, and at times the slapstick is a little too slow-paced to be pulled off. But the company does so much with minimal set and props, and they strive and sorrow so winningly, that it’s hard not to be drawn to all of the characters, even the imperious Ramon. Nutmeat’s mixture of silly and dark jokes amuses but also cuts to the quick at times, a combination that makes both seem more real and makes the show as a whole rather artfully engaging.
(At Access Theater, 380 Broadway;


Nutmeat refers to the sweet salty fatty goodness that drives us all to crack, chew, and rip our way through nutshells. And the nutmeat that awaits you in this 55-minute nutshell is the sheer pleasure of watching actors' imaginations at work. Though these pleasures aren't quite enough to hold this flimsily constructed show together, audiences should still catch this rare opportunity to see an NYC performance created by the always playful and often breathtaking alums of the highly distinctive physical theatre school Ecole Jacques Lecoq.

The tale, scripted by writer/director Megan Campisi and told by the players from Sous Un Autre Angle ("from a different angle"), concerns a family of impoverished puppeteers (hysterically pronounced "pooh-pah-teers" by the family's patriarch Ramon Martinez). Father Ramon builds puppets and, with son Martin, performs fairy tales which, without fail, end in disaster: tangled marionettes, torn costumes, and raging infernos, to name a few. Mother Mimi knits the family's woolen attire and there's also a barbary organ (played by Caroline Reck), "carved" in the likeness of Mimi, who belts out her own versions of (un)forgettable classics like "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Martin is in love with the mechanical chanteuse and the Oedipal implications are orgasmically sung out by the organ as Martin coitally "cleans her pipes." When the Martinez family's dinners devolve from pretzels to paper potatoes to yarn, Mimi and Ramon make a fairly grim—or Grimm; this is a billed as a fairy tale, after all—decision which I'll leave as a surprise, but all wraps up rather happily by show's end.

So, that's the plot in a nutshell, as it were, but unfortunately, it's neither engaging enough nor the relationships satisfying enough to make for hearty theatrical fare. But then there's the meat! Delights abound in the form of a virtuosic mime sequence, an outrageously clever puppet show performed by human marionettes, a butcher-paper set (credited, along with all of the production elements, to the ensemble) which the actors "change" with a sharpie, a charming stick puppet journey...the list goes on. The audience gasped and giggled at these theatrical treasures, and the glimpse into this collective's unconscious is well worth the price of admission.

At times, however, the ensemble falls victim to its fictional family's foibles, mostly in the form of continuity gaps: If they're so hungry, why do they crush stray pretzels (curiously packaged in a Smartfood popcorn bag) underfoot? If Mimi desperately needs wool to keep food on the table, why is a long piece of yarn forgotten on the floor? And if the barbary organ is made entirely of wood, why aren't her movements more consistently, well, wooden?

The ensemble expresses an endearing and palpable pleasure in performing its creation. Boomie Aglietti is quite a bit of fun as a proud Spaniard in the tradition of The Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya, and Max Dana is sweet as the mostly mute Martin. Marc Boucai and Lisa Frank make delicious cameos as the utterly adorable marionettes, and Campisi and Reck ably play Mimi and her wooden likeness, respectively (though one wishes that Mimi's false teeth did not muffle her voice so much).

As Ramon confesses, "Not every story has a nutmeat." While you might leave Nutmeat longing for substance, this ensemble's playful diversions certainly gave me quite a bit to chew on."
Copyright ©2006 The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. All rights reserved.

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