PROVO — Now in its 5th year, BYU’s international theatre festival, Off the Map, has imported an eclectic mix of productions: puppet theatre, an audience collaboration piece, and a Shakespeare adaptation. All give Utah audiences a taste of the diversity of worldwide modern theatre in the 21st century. The first week of Off the Map this year features The Secret Life of Suitcases and Macbeth, while The Fever opens February 1.
The Secret Life of Suitcases
Originating in Scotland, The Secret Life of Suitcases is an innovative puppetry show created by Ailie Cohen and Lewis Hetherington. The play tells the story of Larry, a puppet with a mundane desk job, who receives a bright blue suitcase magically in his office. The suitcase takes Larry on a trip to a meadow, an island, and eventually to outer space. While on another planet, he meets the quarks, spherical hand puppets who sent Larry the suitcase—and who send special gifts to other people throughout the universe.
The concept of the show is built around the potential of suitcases. Appropriately, the set and every prop are tied to suitcases in some way. Some are big travelling trunks, while other suitcases can fit in the palm of the hand. Suitcases form the set (designed by Andrew Gannon), contain props, and serve as doors, a chest of drawers, and other surprising items. Indeed, half the fun of watching the production is discovering a new function of the suitcases on stage.
The Secret Life of Suitcases “is about time, space, the universe, and suitcases.” But don’t let the vastness of its subject matter frighten you. Every scene in this production for young audiences oozes with charm and whimsy that can easily make a connection with a child’s imagination. For example, when the audience first sees the quarks’ planet, Cohen and her fellow performer, Samuel Jameson, made the puppets’ movements and interactions the ideal mix of cutesiness and foreignness. Both performers are superb at puppetry, with Larry somehow conveying emotions, despite not having a mouth or nose.
Although the production is designed with children in mind, there is meat in the production for adults. The Secret Life of Suitcases is a ball of pure creativity, and the production can appeal to audiences of all ages. And with a 45-minute run time, it is easy for parents to get little theatre lovers to bed on time.
Off the Map’s second offering is a two-man Shakespeare production from English actor Paul O’Mahony (who also created the show) and Danish actor Troels Hagen Findsen. Performing on a barren stage, this production focuses on Shakespeare’s language in Macbeth by stripping the play down to its bare bones.
And that is precisely the problem. Almost everything that audiences love about Macbeth is missing from this production. The witches, swordfights, blood, terror, and ghost are all gone or given shallow replacements, such as recorded voices. While I understand the central idea that Shakespeare’s writing is powerful enough that it doesn’t need the trappings of modern productions, the result looks like a “walking shadow” of a real production of Macbeth.
To make things worse, neither Findsen nor O’Mahony seem to be interested in creating real characters or emotion for most of the play. O’Mahony’s Macbeth never seems to wrestle with his conscience, even in important scenes like in Act II when he considers regicide. Findsen’s performances were emotionally stunted. For example, his Macduff was more disappointed than angry or vengeful when he found out his family had been murdered. Findsen also poorly distinguished his characters to the point that Lady Macbeth, Donalbain, and Macduff sometimes had the same mannerisms and physicality. On the other hand, both actors are superb with the language of the play, and the “dagger of the mind” speech was O’Mahony’s strongest moment.
But I just can’t shake the feeling that the diction and literary expertise in line delivery are the only things this production has going for it. Even a Shakespeare fanboy like myself couldn’t find much worth watching in this dull, passionless Macbeth. Audience members would get just as much listening to a Macbeth audiobook.
The Secret Life of Suitcases plays nightly through January 27 at 6:30 PM, with additional performances on January 26 at 10 AM and January 27 at 1 PM, in the Nelke Experimental Theatre in the Harris Fine Arts Center on the campus of Brigham Young University. Tickets are $11-15.
The Out of Chaos Theatre Company production of Macbeth plays nightly through January 27 at 8 PM and on January 27 at 2:30 PM in the Pardoe Theatre in the Harris Fine Arts Center on the campus of Brigham Young University. Tickets are $13-17.
The 600 Highwaymen production of The Fever plays February 1-3 at 5 PM and 8 PM in the Pardoe Theatre in the Harris Fine Arts Center on the campus of Brigham Young University. Tickets are $22-25. For more information about all Off the Map productions, visit www.byuarts.com.
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