Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
October 17, 2010
If one were to create a play based upon mental illness and the vivid imagination that is often associated with it, there would be few better equipped to do so than Dario D'Ambrosi. Having worked with the mentally disabled for more than 30 years in Rome with his theatre company Teatro Patologico (Pathological Theatre), the world he creates in the appropriately named Bong Bong Bong Against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads is largely inspired by his own experience.
The imagery presented in this production is often quite visceral. Roughly-hewn wire cages encircle the heads of both actors and their life-sized puppet doppelgangers as they portray children with mental illness. The children wrestle with mathematical equations and their inner demons, banging on their desks and threatening their professor with their behavioral issues. Soon, the children are stripped of their institutional jumpsuits, tied up in straitjackets and force-fed medication.
Loga (in a sentient performance by Ashley C. Williams) sobs in a corner for her mother while her comrades in mental illness Roica (Celeste Moratti) and Titico (Philip James) are splayed out on medical tables, screaming and spouting gibberish about high function math and commerce. Loga's mother (Theresa Linnihan) comes to try to comfort her child and pleads with the angry schoolmaster/doctor (George Drance) to show the children some basic love and kindness. The doctor, unfortunately, will hear none of it and leaves her with the children.
In playing a few notes on her daughter's harmonica, Loga's mother calms the children in the ward and—through the power of the children's imagination—is transformed into a fairy. While Loga's mother dons an odd sort of hat to indicate this, I must confess I only knew she turned into a fairy through the notes in the program (wings might have helped; this also could have been a terrific opportunity to introduce another puppet). The fairy further frees the children from the restrictions of their illnesses by exorcising large origami frogs out from each of their chests. The frogs are then suspended by magnets and wire from the ceiling—for no obvious reason I could tell other than for visual effect.
The exorcism continues as long ropes of pastel fabric unfurl like mutant bed sheets from the torsos of Aurora Buzzetti's intimidating life-sized puppets with their blank expressions, bald plaster heads, and giant eyes. The ropes, through the magic of stagecraft, turn into billowing sails tethered to the stage that the children wear as they climb up onto their desks and out of their misery. The angry doctor returns in a lab coat wearing a pair of dark goggles, literally taking the air out of the children's sails and bringing them back to earth.
While I think much could be done with the show's premise, it seems to be suffering from an identity crisis which might be addressed by better identifying its audience. While it is a play with music and singing, it is not really a musical. The orchestrations by composer Christian De Gre are pleasant enough (indeed, I am still humming one of the tunes days later), but there are not many songs and the actors—while capable—are not particularly strong singers. While it is a play about children, they scream, suffer, and talk about things you typically wouldn't find in a children's show. There are puppets on stage, but they are underutilized and spend most of their time hanging up on the walls of the playing space—a shame, really, as this production opens La MaMa's Puppet Series Festival.
The show is described as being "fantastical and non-threatening... recommended for theatergoers of all ages, including children," but I had to wonder if they saw the same production that I did. As a child, this production would have terrified and confused me; as an adult, I found it jarring, non-linear, and in need of clearer direction. It's possible that something was lost in the translation written by actor Celeste Moratti, but I think the larger issue is that the simplistic plot could stand some fleshing out. Bong Bong Bong Against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads is a story that alludes to transformation and flight in the face of adversity but, in its present incarnation, it never quite gets off the ground.