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Unrolling the River.

An art project of absurd proportions (catfish included) comes to life at CTC

Around 1835, a 15-year-old named John Banvard left his home in New York, and, as young men were wont to do in those days, lit out for the territories. Banvard had little money and less education, but he did have one enormous idea: He would paint the Mississippi River. Not any mere landscape, but a meticulously detailed panorama, which, when finished, would be the largest painting in the history of the world.

Banvard spent the next few years on a skiff, floating down the river and sketching everything he saw. A few years later, he turned up in St. Louis to exhibit the finished painting, which, like a precursor of motion pictures, rolled on a series of spindles past astonished audiences. According to newspaper accounts, Banvard's magnum opus was over three miles long when unfurled. And if that sounds ambitious, imagine transposing Banvard's curious life--and even curiouser life's work--to the stage.

To begin, you could certainly do worse than to recruit puppet master Michael Sommers and playwright Kevin Kling, whose recent collaboration, Mississippi Panorama, recreated Banvard's world on the stage of Minneapolis's Children's Theatre Company. According to CTC artistic director Peter Brosius, who co-directed the piece with Sommers, the project, like Banvard's epic painting, evolved from a fascination with the Mississippi itself. "Being a person from the coast," the California native explains, "I've long been interested in what it meant to live near this river, in its larger spiritual meanings in the region's culture and history. So we started thinking about a company-created piece that would get at some of those things."

That piece, Brosius continues, began with a series of structured improvisations involving Kling, a frequent CTC collaborator and Sommers, best known for his innovative, often darkly comic, puppetry. "They both have profoundly poetic sensibilities," Brosius says, "but in very different ways. Kevin has this ability to think epically, while still creating idiosyncratic characters and maintaining this subversive comic sense. Michael's background is in object theatre, so he has this great sense of metaphor. He comes at things from a more purely theatrical perspective."

Indeed, if Kling is the brains of this outfit, Sommers's idiosyncratic vision gives Mississippi Panorama its spirit. Showing a visitor through his workshop while dodging a shower of sparks from a welding torch overhead, Sommers explains his aesthetic approach: "There's an elegance in leaving things to the imagination. I think of this as a memory play, or a visual mediation. So with the puppetry I'm trying to get at the essence of things and create this whole other world."

The centerpiece of his creation, Sommers explains, is a baroque proscenium arch--a recreation of the "cranky" machine on which Banvard's painting would have originally been displayed. "My first idea for the scenography was to build a giant cranky," he says, pointing out the hidden doors from which characters, both human and puppet, pop out during the play. "This lost American theatrical form was really interesting to me. What was this machine? How did it work? It was a precursor to moving pictures. And that would have been kind of a magical idea in Banvard's time--to see a painting go by in front of you."

Instead of representing the actual panorama, Sommers conjures Banvard's lost masterpiece in a series of tableaux that incorporate Indonesian shadow puppetry, marionettes, a Greek chorus, vaudeville, Bunraku--and one really big catfish. The fish, roughly the size of a Volkswagen bus, is Sommers's coup de theatre: Its glowing crimson eyes swivel menacingly, while its mouth and fins, operated by two actors, flap about in circles. Elsewhere, Sommers uses sudden shifts in scale--human actors replaced by their puppet doppelgangers and vice versa--to create a fluid surreality, a correlative, he explains, to the disorienting effect Banvard's painting would have had on a 19th-century audience.

While Sommers has worked on large-scale productions before--he has designed scenery and puppetry for the Guthrie and Minneapolis's Theatre de la Jeune Lune--his own solo work tends toward the miniature. Working with a children's theatre, he explains, has given him leave (and the resources) to follow his flights of fancy. And working on such an epic scale has also given him new insight into Banvard's quixotic quest. "It's such a weird thing to think of a three-mile-long canvas. I mean, Banvard was a person who saw the world differently. I can respond to that, to the idea of choosing a course that's not the norm, and daring to have big ideas and follow through on them. It's an important thing to remember, especially in these times."

Kling also envisions the piece on a mythic scale, blending elements of Shakespeare, turn-of-the-century melodrama, American musicals and Homer (he and Sommers sprinkle clever references to The Odyssey throughout, including an island of lotus-eaters populated by fuzzy rat-puppets, and a Circe-like enchantress who rises our of a mythical bayou graveyard). But, the writer explains, he and Sommers also drew from their own experience. Years ago, when both were just starting our, they traveled together down the Mississippi in a slapped-together houseboat as part of an itinerant puppet-and-mask troupe. "We christened this boat the Calypso after Jacques Cousteau's," Kling recalls, "and we made a bow sprite for it out of a women's bowling trophy. There were always people walking around on stilts or playing horns. It was insane, but in a magical way."

Of course, Kling notes with a chuckle, this new ramble down the Mississippi ended better than that last one: The Calypso hit a sandbar in Ohio and sank to the bottom of the river. AT

Minneapolis-based Peter Ritter is a 2001-02 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from a grant by the Jerome Foundation.
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Title Annotation:Mississippi Panorama
Author:Ritter, Peter
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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