Sunday, February 15, 2009

STAGE: Pippin

I'd never seen Pippin before, although I've always liked some of the famous tunes from the show, so when I heard that the Mark Taper was mounting a production, I was eager to check it out. When I heard that it was a co-production with Deaf West Theatre, I was even more intrigued. I was quite taken with their last collaboration, Big River, a few years ago, and knew how extraordinarily creative that combination could be. On the surface of it, a musical put on by a theatre company dedicated to the deaf, and featuring a mixed cast of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing actors, sounds like a dubious proposition. But a bilingual (English and American Sign Language) staging can add a whole artistic dimension to the show. If you've seen a good signing of lyrics (the Gay Men's Chorus of LA concerts are always great for that), then you'll know how artfully expressive the signing can be. If done right, incorporating signing into a production is a significant addition, not a distraction. And this production really does it right. Several of the characters are played by deaf actors who have off-stage actors providing their voices, and Pippin is played by two on-stage actors, a primary deaf one and a vocal shadow (the notion of a sign-language interpreter turned upside-down), a technique used to great dramatic advantage. Pippin is given his voice by the magician in the beginning through a magic trick, smartly exploiting the magic theme to introduce the concept of two side-by-side actors playing one character. At times, the vocal double fades into the background as we watch the deaf primary actor while hearing the voice. Other times, the vocal double adds expression of his own physically as well as vocally. And on occasion, they talk to each other, embodying conflicting emotions within the character they both play. (In a way, it was reminiscent of the "daemon" concept in the Golden Compass novels I recently read.) The device was no mere device, but was made an integral part of the story, and it worked brilliantly.

The other aspect of this production that was totally inspired was a visual conceit of disembodied body parts running throughout the production. This appears in the very first number just as an eye-popping choreographic visual when two pairs of arms, tightly spot-lit, thrust up through an invisible seam in the stage floor and start signing to the music. These detached arms appear at various points throughout the show. During a bloody battle number, detached arms and legs are dropped onto the stage, and at the end of the battle, Pippin has a unique conversation with a severed head lying on the ground, and its nearby detached arm (which signs as the head speaks). Later, during Pippin's episode of hedonism, there's a racy boudoir scene where Pippin (both of them) is ravished by a fluid series of arms and torsoes popping out of and submerging back into the bed sheets. Even the canopy of the bed is comprised of beaux-arts nymph-like women's bodies. The whole visual was worthy of Jean Cocteau. This extended theme of detached body parts was marvelous on a pure visual level, while on a symbolic level beautifully underscoring Pippin's sense of incompleteness and the unfulfilling dreams he chases.

There were other lovely visuals as well. "Love Song" was made particularly memorable with the two falling-in-lovers uplit so that they threw large shadows as they faced each other and signed, at one point even spelling out L-O-V-E in ephemeral hand shadows. And the saucy cabaret choreography of "No Time At All" was great fun.

This top notch cast, in this inspired production, is working magic at the Mark Taper Forum.

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