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By Jenn McKee
Much of the aural backdrop for “String Up the Moon,” now being staged by Fratellanza in Downtown Detroit’s PuppetART space, sounds like the music you’d imagine hearing on a winding down, slightly sinister, funhouse merry-go-round. (Tinkling piano, percussive tambourine, and low brass underpinnings.)
This is wholly appropriate, given the off-kilter, absurdist world created within the confines of the show.
In fact, one of “Moon”‘s biggest strengths is the way its various production elements work in concert with each other to create a unique, haunting, familiar-but-alien atmosphere. The music (by Michael Malis), the lighting, the creative use of props (an overcoat, held a certain way and topped with a bow, becomes a dog), as well as the acting styles, immerse you in an alternate world wherein two stories by 19th century Russian writers unfold.
The first, inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” features Jim Manganello, decked out in vivid, expressionist makeup, as a low-level civil servant (“a titular counselor,” he notes repeatedly) who imagines a written correspondence between two dogs, pines for his boss’ daughter, and convinces himself – upon reading in the newspaper that Spain’s throne is suddenly vacant – that he’s the rightful king of Spain.
The second, shorter work is Alexander Pushkin’s 1832 play, “Mozart and Salieri,” which touches on the pain experienced by a hard-working, driven composer (Salieri) who knows, with dreadful certainty, that his pieces will never achieve the beauty of Mozart’s seemingly effortless works.
Though “Mozart” is fine, it feels less satisfying than “Diary,” which tells an appealingly less familiar tale with a sense of dark playfulness and theater magic.
Sango Tajima, dressed in black (with a plastic black nose), skillfully exaggerates a little dog’s jaunty walk, expressions and gestures; the story’s primary set piece – which looks a bit like a desk on six-foot-tall legs, with a few compartments for the players’ use (Reed Esslinger designed the set) – is manipulated (and climbed) in imaginative ways to suggest different settings; a doorknob held by Manganello stands in for a door; a woman is a series of wood blocks, covered in a dress; and breakfast dishes levitate, thanks to Tajima and Paul Manganello (who are the supporting players in the piece, providing lots of clever atmospheric touches), and a tea kettle whistles.
Director Samuel Blake lets the world of “Diary,” like it’s main character, unravel in a deliberate, unrushed, weirdly beautiful fashion; and Jim Manganello’s thoughtful, quietly outrageous performance helps engage the audience more intensely.
“Mozart” features Jim Manganello as Mozart, and Paul Manganello as Salieri. Paul’s droopy eyes make him a good fit for the disappointed, spiritually wounded composer; however, his default far-off gaze, and too-muted emotions make Salieri a person held at arm’s length from the audience. In order to understand Salieri’s frustration, and the madness that draws him to violence, we must sympathize with how his past and ambition have led to this moment, and why Mozart is an affront to Salieri’s very existence. Instead, Salieri comes off as a cold, heartless, somewhat robotic figure. And while this style may fit into the larger whole of the show, it nonetheless tripped me up. (Plus, the show’s dark, ghostly, lingering final image is Salieri alone in a green light, which might be a bit too “on the nose,” given the character’s penchant for jealousy.)
“Moon”‘s opening night was pretty late getting started – nearly a half hour – but the intermissionless show runs under 90 minutes.
As previously noted, “Diary” is the meat of the presentation, but the whole is worth checking out – not only for its whimsical theatrical invention, but for the risk-taking, and courage, exhibited by talented theater young artists who have boldly created something unconventional.
‘String Up the Moon’
Fratellanza at PuppetART, 25 E. Grand River, Detroit. 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8. 90 minutes. $5-15. http://www.Fratellanzatheater.org
The production then moves to Frolich Amphitheater in the Michigan Legacy Art Park, 12500 Crystal Mountain Dr., Thompsonville. 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14. $5-15. http://www.Fratellanzatheater.org
The production then concludes its run at Jam Handy as part of the Detroit Design Festival, 2900 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Sept. 20 – 21. $5-15. http://www.Fratellanzatheater.org