nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
January 25, 2005
Pop quiz. How much do you know about Bulgaria in the 1920s? Not very much? Then you might find yourself a bit baffled by Chris Green’s puppet and dance theatre piece, Lyubo. Its conceit is that it is an archeological piece; constructed out of images and words from Philip Sweetbriar, a railroad prospector, who sent letters to his daughter Regina in Arkansas between 1925 and 1928. He then vanished from the public record, leaving his fate essentially a mystery.
If you fail to read much of the program notes beforehand, much of Lyubo is also a mystery. Why is there a red horse on stage? What does the white dove mean? Why is Green talking with a Southern accent? It is a dreamlike experience, rife with a sense of enigma, inherently self-reflecting, both beautiful and inexplicable.
Told primarily through the actual text of Sweetbriar’s letters, Lyubo recreates his own images with inventive puppetry, shadow plays, and music. While some of it left me a bit cold (dancing with pendulums seemed a bit trite), the music and puppetry are expert and whimsical. Some of the most stunning work is with shadows: a house reflected in the water, a man looking out at the audience from nearby a church. Breathtaking by themselves, these images are a testament to what visual arts and a little human touch can bring to live performance.
Green himself performs as Sweetbriar, and is as remote a presence as is his subject. His tone is laconic, distant. He’s as much an active storyteller as an actor. It works, though, for that reason. The play itself is acting, the performers are puppeteers more than anything, and Green’s puppet is almost himself.
The original music definitely adds to the success of the proceedings. Rima Fand and Megan Wyler’s voices and the tuba (yes, tuba) performances of Joe Exley, Jay Rozen and Christopher Meeder underscore perfectly even the most seemingly mundane moments. Just watching Green walk over tables, reading from a little green Bible would have little flavor if not for the potent spell of "The Walking Song."
In the end, Lyubo’s success and failure with an audience depends on their own investment in the material. There are certainly moments that seem almost a parody of the avant-garde. When the giant white sasquatch began stroking a puppet and singing about the sacraments, I must admit I rolled my eyes. But trumping this was the earnestness and overall skill with which Green attacks this obscure material.