Going in, my first question was 'What the heck is toy theater'? I did not quest for long. Had I not been running late, I might have been able to peruse the many brochures, books, and displays in the lobby to get my answer. But it was of no matter, for once we were all seated--and it was a packed house, of all ages--members of the Great Small Works offered an explanation.
To the accompaniment of a trio of musicians, one member told us in sing-song the history of toy theater. As it happens, it's a rather long--though amusing--history. In short, it became popular in 18th-century Europe as a way for people to reproduce great stage classics on a smaller level in their own homes. "The original toy theaters," the program states, "were complete dramas in miniature, directly modeled on European stage hits." Great Small Works, six members in all, has been instrumental in creating a renewed interest in this form. This is, in fact, the , with a variety of entries that range from productions similar to what one might have expected to see in the old days of tiny theater to Great Small's own works, which often include modern reinventions of the form.
This year's Festival, a three week affair, began earlier this month and continues through November 19. Each weekend features a different rotation of programs, showcasing performances from around the country and the globe. The night I went, I saw three shows, each representing wildly different aspects of the genre.
Joe Gladwin's Dracula was the most elaborate, with excellent small-scale production values, from detailed cardboard cutout costumes and scenery to dazzling lighting effects. Standing behind and looming over his grand-yet-tiny stage, Gladwin voiced all the characters as he deftly moved them and the scenery on and off the stage (via 'the wings'), all the while operating a vast array of evocative lighting and sound effects. It was a triumph of skill, not to mention a gripping and funny drama. The ending came together particularly well, as Gladwin portrayed Dracula's demise with some stunning visuals set to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake finale.
Dracula was followed with something a bit lighter: Liz Joyce's Sing a Song of Sixpence, a clever little musical piece by Arthur A. Penn, performed by Joyce. Steven Widerman accompanied on piano as he and Joyce sang Penn's cantata about the dangers of eating blackbird pie. Using a multi-purpose tea cart as her stage, Joyce performed the song with the aid of puppets designed by herself and a cute little blackbird pie designed by Tim Lagasse.
Finally, we were treated to Episode Ten of Great Small Works' own Toy Theater of Terror As Usual. A sometimes puzzling series of vignettes on a theme ("Strange Weather," this one was called), Terror As Usual is "designed as a response to daily news events." Great Small Works' performers--John Bell, Trudi Cohen, Stephen Kaplin, Jenny Romaine, Roberto Rossi, and Mark Sussman--used a bit of everything here, from puppets to cutouts to odd little props. The group opened by singing R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It" as cardboard ballerinas danced across the stage. Later scenes included accompanying text and music; we were treated to images as disparate as a bunny playing classical piano and the effects of a tornado on the small stage. Not something easily articulated, Terror As Usual is one of those surprisingly affecting creations that you can find nowhere else but at the theater.
This coming weekend (November 16-19), Terror As Usual will be performed again, along with a whole different set of shows including Frits Gimmelikhuizen's Variations on Kandinsky ("a theater performance for colored paper, colored light and electronic music"), Susan Simpson's marionette play Pseudoflora, and Laura Heit's Matchbox Shows (performed on actual matchboxes with live video projections so that the audience can get a good view). That's just a sampling of what's coming up; details about performances, schedules, and programs specifically for children can be found at http://gotham-usa.com/toytheater/.
All performances take place at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Avenue), where you can also view an exhibition of photos, video, and toy theaters at the HEREArt Gallery. Historical displays as well as the newest designs are there to be viewed through December 2. Also of special note is a Toy Theater Making Workshop that will take place on Saturday, November 18th from 1:00 to 4:00pm, $10 for children and $20 for adults.