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Playwright Matthew Everett took in the new Sandbox Theatre offering, loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." The verdict? It's not perfect, but it's still a great night of theater.
By Matthew Everett
November 18, 2008

[i]HBMD[/i] presented by Sandbox Theatre, on stage at the Red Eye Theater through November 22 (Mask and puppet-maker Derek Miller holds the horse head aloft. Photo courtesy of the artists)

 

     "How Far Will You Go to Find Them?"
     —from
The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey and The Dancer
     by Sandbox Theatre

SANDBOX THEATRE'S LAST PRODUCTION, War With The Newts, was one of my favorite theater experiences last year and a show not enough people saw - an oddball comic sci-fi, environmentalist allegory in which the human race gets knocked down a notch or two on the food chain, a little payback for ecological harm done. The story was told completely from the point of view of an ensemble of black and gray newts who were engaged in efforts to save their own civilization from humanity's sad fate. The Sandbox Theatre play before that, What Remains, was a beautiful evocation of love and grief, in which the boundaries of time and memory were rendered fluid, the realms of the living and the dead connected by a mutual longing for some trace of solace in the wake of loss. (Another of my favorites of 2007, and I’m afraid even fewer people saw this one.) So, I have to admit to feeling a surprised thrill when I arrived at the theater to see Sandbox's newest production, The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey, and The Dancer and the young woman without a reservation in line in front of me was told: "You'll have to wait over here to the side for a minute. We may have a few seats open up but right now we're completely sold out." Everyone strives for a sold-out opening performance, but not many theaters actually manage to draw that kind of crowd right off the bat. It was a good omen with which to start to the night.

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“Words are not enough. I sing for those that are lost.”
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The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey, and The Dancer, the latest offering from Sandbox Theatre, is by far their most accessible work to date. That's a mixed blessing. The upside is that audience turnout for this one will likely be the best they've had. (Learn from the previously mentioned young woman's example and make your reservation early, just in case. If nothing else, it's nice for the company to know you're coming). The downside is, well, this new production is no War With The Newts. That said, once you've seen War With The Newts, anything merely good which follows seems like a bit of a letdown. The stars only align that perfectly every so often. But one of the virtues of Sandbox Theatre's ensemble-driven aesthetic is that they, quite literally, never do the same kind of thing twice. Take two other recent Sandbox productions I’ve seen as examples: Zelda Wonderland was a surreal meditation on the life of the ill-fated Zelda Fitzgerald; and then there's Koogoomanooki, a workplace farce so outrageously bizarre, with a title character so unexpected and enormous (he literally filled the entire height and length of the Red Eye stage), that I found myself enjoying it despite my usual dislike of the genre. (I find office comedies to be almost as pointless as plays about art and artists.)

 

Sandbox Theatre is an extremely adventurous, even fearless company of creators. For that reason alone, you should see their latest work. In addition to that, The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey, and The Dancer (or HBMD, as they like to call it) is, in many ways, a perfect introduction to the sort of thing they do best.

What exactly do they do? The program sums it up well: "Sandbox is a collaborative ensemble company. That means there's no script when we start rehearsals. All the text, movement, and most of the story of HBMD was generated through six weeks of intense workshopping led by Sandbox's creation process. So the performers aren't just tasked with memorizing lines and blocking - they're also playwrights, choreographers, dramaturgs and directors of this play. It's an exhaustive and exhausting way to create theatre, but we believe the best art comes from many voices. It's intuitive, it's messy, it's inspirational and it's terrifying." I have to add that when all pistons are firing in an engine like this, as they were with Zelda and Newts, the results of such a creative process are riveting and tremendously entertaining to watch. But this method's risky, too. When things are even just a little off, as they are with HBMD, it shows. After watching for a while, I found myself wondering: How did it take two dozen people six weeks to come up with The Wizard of Oz?

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“The world is finite, so why not have small clocks?”
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To be fair, HBMD is an incarnation of “The Hero’s Journey,” a tale as old as time and the template for countless stories, including The Wizard of Oz. If the protagonist had been a young man, Huck Finn or Star Wars might have sprung to mind. The plot is classic and simple: our journeying hero is a young woman named Propsera (Katie Kaufmann). The Red Death (Kristina Fjellman) has descended upon the land and Prospera’s family has gone missing; Prospera doggedly heads off in search of them. Along the way, she accumulates several traveling companions: the title characters of Horse (Peter Heeringa), Bird (Katie Melby), Monkey (Eric Sharp), and Dancer (Sara Richardson). The heroine's path also includes encounters with a two-headed bureaucrat (Derek Miller/Sara Richardson), a deliberately inscrutable Great Monk and an ominous factory boss (both played by Heather Stone), a treacherous carnival manager (Fjellman again), and a deceptively comforting evangelical prophet (Miller again). Finally, Prospera comes face to face with the Red Death itself - who holds the key to her family’s fate. A chorus (Mark Benzel, Helen Buron, Stacy Lee King, & Valerie Rigsbee) fills a host of supporting roles which fully populate this world; and, aside from Prospera, everyone in the cast drops in and out of the buzz of humanity on stage from time to time.

 

There is some amazing shadow and puppet work throughout, and that alone is worth the price of admission. The opening sequence depicting newly bereaved people wrapping their dead in shrouds, mourning the loss of loved ones to the Red Death, was particularly striking. On the other end of the shadow-play's emotional scale were some truly charming moments involving Katie Melby, as the human manifestation of Bird. Each time she stepped behind one of the set’s shadow walls, a silhouette of the Bird puppet suddenly appeared in her place to fly through the air. I’m sure it was a simple bit of stage magic, but it was a magical moment, nonetheless.

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“That’s where the men with the paper come from.”
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Derek Miller is the company’s resident mask and puppet creator and once again he delivers, especially with Horse, Bird and Monkey. And in Eric Sharp’s mischievous hands, the Monkey puppet frequently threatens to steal the show.

 

As usual with Sandbox, you can count on all design elements to be top-notch. Though the story is only very loosely inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, the production hangs on to Poe’s color scheme. Just as the rooms of the abbey, as described in the original tale, were each decorated in a different color, so too are all of the scenes and settings of Sandbox’s staged quest designed in sequence: white, blue, green, yellow, red, orange, purple, and black/scarlet. Designer Ryan Hill’s neutral background set allows Heidi Eckwall’s rainbow-hued lighting and Michael Carina’s projections and artwork to create each of the multicolored environments for the journey. The vibrant costume work (by Andrew Lawrence Schiff, Laura Fulk, Anna Lee, & Kerry Riley) also reinforces the color scheme, which is echoed yet again in Miller’s puppet and mask work for Horse, Bird, and Monkey.

The problem with HBMD isn’t in its presentation; the acting and design are great. The trouble here rests with the plot or, rather, the lack of one. There are two things inherent in this story's narrative which could and probably should be driving the plot: the presence of death and the search for Prospera's family. But there is no real urgency tied to either one of these potential plot-drivers.

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“There’s no fun in haggling with the desperate.”
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The Red Death makes an appearance at the outset, and the affecting shadow-play gives us some notion of the consequences of its path of merciless destruction. Likewise, Prospera’s search for her missing family is launched at the beginning of the story. Then, unfortunately, both of these promising dramatic narrative elements are effectively dropped from the story. The Red Death literally disappears from the rest of the play, only to resurface at the very end. Prospera heads out on the road, and there are hints here and there that the family she seeks might have passed through not long before her, but there’s no specific destination in mind that drives her quest. Our heroine is in a state of perpetual distraction, easily sidetracked from her path by anyone and everyone. What's more, there don’t seem to be any consequences for her lack of focused attention, no sense that her family (or she) might suffer should she not find them in time. As a result, Prospera's quest and all those on it just meander along. It’s not that the characters aren’t entertaining, or that their side trips aren’t intriguing. It’s just that there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to keep watching them or to care where they end up. Nothing seems to be at stake. When the Red Death reappears, she lets everyone know that she’s been following Prospera, as death follows us all. This moment of revelation should be a compelling one – but the audience hadn't been groomed for it by the story's proceedings at all. We don’t see Red Death stalking our heroes, and we have no hint of the plague's victims they've left in their journey's wake. The audience isn't given reason, from what they see on stage leading up to the finale, to shiver at Death's oncoming menace or inevitability. What's frustrating is that the shadow-play at the top of the evening makes it clear that Sandbox is well-equipped to capably portray such events, maintaining a sense of dread and suspense throughout the action. They just don’t. When the fate of Propsera’s family is revealed, it feels more like “Oh, well...” than “Oh my God!” Ultimately, no one can escape death, but does Prospera submit to such an end herself? Or does she make peace with death and keep going in spite of it? A good play raises questions, but a little plot ambiguity goes a long way. Maybe the side trips are the point of the story; but even so, just like in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Wizard of Oz or even The Masque of the Red Death, the tale as a whole still needs to finally go somewhere.

 

Narrative quibbles aside, The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey & The Dancer still adds up to another solid outing from Sandbox Theatre, and I highly recommend you see it. This work may still be evolving in some ways, but a work-in-progress from Sandbox still beats many theaters’ efforts on established scripts most days of the week. Also bear in mind, I’m comparing HBMD to Sandbox's own best work, not somebody else’s—and they’ve set the bar mighty high for themselves. So, if you’ve never seen one of the company's productions, The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey and The Dancer is a great way to become acquainted. Once you see one Sandbox production, you’re hooked for the next.

About the author: Matthew A. Everett’s next play on a Minneapolis stage will be Two Left Feet, part of Commedia Beauregard’s “Master Works: The MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) Plays,” Sundays in January and February 2009 at the Bryant Lake Bowl. Recent productions include Leave (afterdark theatre company), The Bronze Bitch Flies At Noon (Magicword Theater), and Dog Tag (Appetite Theatre in Chicago). Matthew is the recipient of a Drama-Logue Award for Outstanding Writing for the Theater, and he is a three-time recipient of support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. His blog about the Minnesota Fringe Festival (and theater in general) can be found online at Twin Cities Daily Planet. Sample scenes, monologues, and further information on Matthew and his work can be found online at www.matthewaeverett.com and, of course, at www.mnartists.org/matthew_everett.

What: The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey and The Dancer, created and presented by the ensemble performers of Sandbox Theatre
Where: Red Eye Theater, Minneapolis, MN
When: The show runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, through November 22
Tickets: $18 ($14 for students and seniors)

 

MN Artists