Usually, epics are collective cultural forms that relate elaborate heroic adventures or embody national or religious myths. Think Odysseus or Beowulf. Imagine fantastic settings, supernatural beings, fearsome fate-dealing gods and questing humans who struggle for divine redemption and transcendent knowledge.
Classical epics– like the Hindu Mahabarata– contain as much philosophical debate and theological commentary as they do gory battle scenes and occasional comic asides. It takes a civilization to sustain epics— which, in traditional societies, are sung and acted, danced and represented in small and large scale theatrical productions with live actors, puppets, shadow plays, magic tricks and imagery drawn from every strata of society. Epics are beloved, enduring and cosmic, and they give meaning to human life. Like dogs.
Or, so you will find out, since Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura, Part 1, a two-and-a-half-hour multi-media music-driven puppet extravaganza is an epic. More precisely, I would call it an Epic Americana, featuring a dog with an addiction to a bad master and a longing for fame who spirals into the depths of popular cultural despair and unexpected spiritual teachings that lead her to grapple with the meaning of love, sex, gender, longing, transformation and species-specific behavior.
Here is the story that Breuer— writer/director and founder of the legendary Mabou Mines theater company— has been doggedly writing for decades: Rose, a dog, meets John, a wannabe artist filmmaker, in a city park and falls in love him. He takes her home and seems to care but then mistreats her badly. In revenge, Rose writes a “Dear John” letter, and, later, as therapy (while being treated at the Institute for the Science of Soul in Cheesequake, New Jersey), she laments, lambasts, excoriates and attempts to exorcise John for his duplicity, ineptitude and feckless engagement with life.
From Rose’s perspective, dogs are “an image in a mirror of a master’s mind/We are the lawful wedded species of the human race.” Rose realizes, with double Hegelian dialectical twists, that she is both a concept and a slave to John, her master. Yet, by nature, she can’t help herself, and she’s addicted to love, canine loyalty and self-deception. Love, as Rose whines, is vain and causes pain.
This tale is staged on a spectacluar theater filling set (designed by Alison Yerxa) with a live five-piece band, a chorus of five male and three female singers (The Poppers and The Wild Women), several narrators, ten Bunraku style puppets and dozens of costumed puppeteers, two revolving “turntables” (so the puppets can seem as if they are walking), animated projections, film clips and hundreds of props. It’s told through delirious poetic passages as well as a Smithsonian library of straight and parodic musical genres, ranging from the blues and doo-wop to tango, sardonic country-Western, jazz, reggae and techno. The music is composed and directed by Lincoln Schleifer, with other work by Bob Telson, who was Breuer’s composer for their highly successful work, The Gospel at Colonus.
As in many non-Western storytelling performance traditions, the narrative itself as well as the dialogue and verbal interaction is read, sung and spoken by off-stage voices. Thus Breuer stylistically adapts Brechtian sprechstimme (speech-song), African-American and country talking blues, even rap, with nonstop sound that makes the production careen along like a runaway train in a demented underworld Disneylandscape. That is fitting, since Breuer credits Disney as an influence, and since scenes in Part 1 of La Divina Caricatura, like Dante’s Inferno, take place in a contemporary Hades: Manhattan’s Lower East Side subway stations.
The voice for Rose is the remarkable Bernadine Mitchell, whose previous credits include performances as Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Mrs. Potts in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and stints in musicals and with gospel groups. John is sung and spoken by the singer-songwriter (and Breuer’s previous collaborator) John Margolis. Other solo and ensemble voices deftly assume accents and vocalizations as peculiar as their characters. The longtime Mabou Mines actor Terry O’Reilly bleats advice to Rose as a lawyerly sheep. Puppetry director Jessica Scott animates all them, including Butch Bunny, a transvestite rabbit; Porco, a prig Porky Piggish addiction program director; and Sri Moo, a ten-foot tall masked purple draped sacred cow who will eventually aid Rose in her Hindu-like reincarnations when Parts 2 and 3— Ecco Porco and The Warrior Ant— are produced. Yes, pigs and ants– as Breuer, an equal opportunity artist parodist, also credits E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins for informing him on the science of genetic evolution.
‘You’re the heel’
No doubt Breuer possesses epical credentials. His previous work is animal animated and evolutionary, beginning with The Red Horse Animation and B. Beaver, through The Shaggy Dog Animation, The Warrior Ant, Epidog, and Ecco Porco. He has been living and working in all forms of theater in America, Europe, Asia, the South Pacific. All of these sources— from classical Japanese Bunraku puppetry to unique renditions of Samuel Beckett’s plays to gospel services combined with Greek tragedy as The Gospel at Colonus– vivaciously flash in the blinking of strobe lights and the pop of puppets cha-cha-ing to lyrics like: “Heel, girl! And I said, ‘No, John, you’re the heel!’”
In the end, after the song and dance and salacious scenes of interspecies desire and cartoon emotionality that resonate with mythic insight and hints of enlightenment, Rose is resigned to ask Sri Moo “for deliverance from the body of my imagination.” We know that she won’t be going to the animal farm in the heavens. This is an American epic, after all, and there will surely be a second life and– and a third! Then, probably, revivals and re-runs. As it is written.