Written and directed by Spencer Lott
Featuring Jamie Agnello, Chelsea Fryer, Sam Jay Gold, Robert M. Stevenson, Rowan Magee
Dixon Place 161A Chrystie Street
September 9, 2016 – September 24, 2016
Worlds unfold on screen and in soundscapes and on nursing home walls in Blossom, a puppet-and-human play about end of life and living in the moment currently charming audiences downstairs at Dixon Place in Chinatown.
The imagined and all-too-real lives of an artistic man James Blossom (our puppet character in a sweater vest), a retired movie set painter, morph in and out of imagined vistas, movie scenes he helped create (an underwater adventure, a flying caper, a mountain climbing expedition), and real life dramas (a dementia diagnosis, a move into a nursing home orchestrated by his daughter Kathryn, financial challenges). James rebuffs then eases into new friendships with residents Ronald (puppet in ear flap hat) and Maisey (puppet in bunny slippers) and nurses and aides, male and female. Blossom, funded in part by The Jim Henson Foundation, written and directed by puppeteer Spencer Lott, is an end of life drama with truth, humor, and the warm embrace of human kindness.
We are initially greeted by spattered paint cloths, bare and primed canvases, and a black box performance space illuminated by work lights. A black out into the exquisite sound design by Chris Gabriel evokes the first of many cinematic worlds: an underwater seascape and the beep beep of an submarine captained by James, a dreamscape based we are to learn on one of the movies he worked on in his younger days. Our first moments with widower James are memories or movie worlds or hallucinations or perhaps some combination of all three. Throughout the play, we’re underwater (or atop a mountain or flying through the air) until we’re not, with each next challenge James faces: a spill on his beloved motor cycle, a visit to the doctor, the hard choice his daughter Kathryn (Jamie Agnello) makes to put him in residential care, and moments of frustration that follow.
Much credit to the author (and puppet maker and director) Spencer Lott for avoiding most tropes about this kind of story. The human-sized doctors and nurses and attendances are not evil profiteers but kind and gentle characters. Real life costs of care are discussed and become a stressor for Kathryn at one point, and we are shown in small details that Blossom’s fellow residents are accomplished and well-to-do (Maisey was a Senator we learn and Ronald ran a company) — this is not a middle class nursing home and we know its costs.
This lovely play joins the family of theater works that deal with fatal illness: Wit (cancer) and Wings (stroke) and The Father (dementia). In those plays, our protagonist is the one afflicted and we rely on their narration of their story to give us insight, and sometimes we have to learn that they are unreliable narrators. Their ability to process their surroundings suffers from their illnesses. We learn about the illness, we feel along with the characters some of the effects. With James, we feel some of his anxiety and yet the world he retreats to is full of joy and color and wonderment.
The dance between and among puppet characters and their human handlers is exquisite. In the Bunraku tradition, arms and heads and feet are managed with attachments, sometimes multiple humans manipulating each puppet creature to make the movements believable. A human character Kelly (Chelsea Fryer), the residence’s part time art director, provides another kind of dance, artist to artist with James who has been quickly retreating into his imagination, not engaging with the world at the residence at all. She identifies his artistic side, she begins to paint a mural with him that brings out his charm. Daughter Kathryn joins the dance of remembrance, illustrating in conversation that while James could not recall what he had for breakfast that day, he could recall the number of cans of paint he used for the sets on a beloved movie job, nicely hewing to established aging research.
Puppet movements charm at all times (a swoop down a slide constructed with planks assembled by attendants or puppets flying from one side of the stage to the other) and the dialogue text could sometimes feel leaden in comparison, but it was necessary to frame the story. There is brilliance in the choice to tell this gentle and heartbreaking story with aging residents as puppets who are gently and expertly handled by human-sized puppeteers who double as human characters. They’re not monsters but caretakers to the strong personalities who have led fascinating lives who are, by illness, by age, by inevitability, retreating into themselves. A village is evoked by five people, three human puppets and at least one animal (was there a squirrel puppet?) that embraces. It’s human scale and it’s not, its imaginary and it’s utterly real.
© Martha Wade Steketee (September 15, 2016)
Writer + Director | Spencer Lott
Set Design | Simon Harding
Lighting Design | Alex Jainchill
Sound Design | Chris Gabriel
Dramaturg | Amy Jensen
Puppet Design | Spencer Lott