The Adventures of Charcoal Boy
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 3, 2006
Passion and puppetry strike like the lightning that created the title character in The Adventures of Charcoal Boy, making this multimedia theatre work a joy to experience. The puppets pop out at you, the video sprouts like weeds, and the music stomps and flows over the whole thing.
The story follows Charcoal Boy on a journey that starts with life-giving lightning. Charcoal Boy is a fairly normal-looking brown tree branch who is thrust into the bleak world of a traveling cabaret show. The owner of the cabaret is a fella named Cathead. When we meet Cathead he sings a hilarious song about his resistance to getting fixed. At first Cathead rejects Charcoal Boy after his audition, but he soon discovers that Charcoal Boy has a hidden talent. His charred legs are like drawing sticks, perfect for sketching various figures as Charcoal Boy dances a gliding, skating dance. He meets another dancer/singer named Flame Girl, a beautiful rod puppet with a series of metal hoops for legs and a pristine porcelain face. She helps Charcoal Boy make it in this harsh world. There are other odd puppets made out of found objects that speak in noisy electronic nonsense that also help Charcoal Boy.
One of the unique conventions in this show is the use of large sheets of paper for the various sets. The ensemble enters with box cutters and slices out a new set on which Charcoal Boy can draw or on which video can be projected or out of which puppets can pop. It is such a simple device and yet so imaginative. But that’s what I’ve come to expect from Sarah Provost and Eric Novak, the show’s co-creators and designers.
Novak’s puppet designs are as resourceful as human adaptation. He uses found objects, beautiful pieces of art and homemade sculpture, to create some truly exquisite puppets of various styles. There are rod, Bunraku, and shadow puppets all incorporated into the action. The story itself is an archetypical journey and is somewhat compelling but not as much as it could be. I found myself a bit uninterested in Charcoal Boy’s plight. In fact, I found Cathead to be a more interesting character. The design of Charcoal Boy may be part of the reason: this puppet’s head has a very limited range of movement and I think that may have prevented him from being a bit more expressive. Cathead, on the other hand, has a large range of movements and he is also the only character that is voiced (and voiced very well by bandleader/composer Elyas Khan).
Khan is the frontman of Nervous Cabaret, a local band with one of the most distinctive sounds in the city. They play with so much passion that it is impossible not to get wrapped up in every note and every lyric. Khan wrote most of the show's lyrics (a few are written by Provost), and his touch of darkness and devotion is so potent that at times I hoped the song would have kept on going. The music is indeed so passionate that it in some ways overpowers the rest of the show. This did not make for a bad experience but quite the opposite. I loved this show. I felt pure elation at times. The conventions combined with the music and the well-choreographed puppeteers make this one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.
Director Provost puts a vision onstage that is seemingly straight from her mind, unaltered and dazzling. She guides the ensemble of puppeteers flawlessly forward in this dark yet hopeful world where anything can come to life. They are fantastic at manipulating the most subtle movements and creating a sense of gravity beneath the feet of their puppets.
I could go on and on about what makes this show worth a look but to save you time, dear readers, I’ll just say this— go see both shows in this year’s Dream Music Puppetry Program at HERE. You will thank yourself.