Monday, July 2, 2007

Children and art

My weekend in the Hamptons featured an unexpected theatrical event, courtesy of my four-and-a-half-year-old niece and nephew and three-year-old nephew, who announced on Saturday evening that they were going to put on a play. They spent at least half an hour in the backyard, preparing for their show -- most of this time was devoted to set-decorating (coloring on the sidewalk with chalk), broken up by periodic trips into the house to bark for said show. "You can watch!" they would tell us. "It's not ready yet." At one point, the two four-year-old auteurs had a falling out over whether or not one of the parents present would serve as narrator -- "We don't need a narrator because we are going to tell what happens," my nephew explained. "That's the play!" As it turns out, the narrator might have been a useful device. But anyway, the preshow buzz was at a fever pitch by the time my nephew announced, "It's time for the show!"

What followed was a fascinating mix of processional and site-specific theatre, postmodern dance, metatheatrical audience interaction, boldly avant-garde prop use and highly unorthodox storytelling. "Follow the fish!" the kids told us when we (the audience) came out onto the porch, and they wriggled along the path (chalked to represent water) in an impressively fishlike manner. It was an arresting start -- and we did follow -- but once we all got to the end of the path, things started to deteriorate rather quickly. The fish led us back along the path, through the garage and back again to where we'd started; one told us to sit, and then another informed us we were on "Shark Island" and would need to be encased in "plastic" to avoid being bitten. (Extra plastic was applied to my 2-month-old nephew, lying vulnerable in my arms.) After that was accomplished, we were divided by the actors into two-person "teams," although the purpose of these teams was never explained. Then the cast members distributed some branches cut from nearby bushes, two to each audience member -- although, again, no one told us what the branches were for. Then they reorganized the "teams" (this time I got to be on a team with the baby, which I worried would put me at a disadvantage if we were called to strategize -- although I was holding him anyway, so it probably made sense for him to be on my team rather than someone else's, as was originally the case). By this point, several audience members were suggesting helpfully that perhaps it was time for the acting to begin.

"We are acting already," my nephew insisted, confoundingly. "I am a Seal, she's a Fish, and he's a Shark." Given this valuable clue, the three-year-old Shark (who presumably had not been allowed much creative input) sprang into action and wriggled toward us, menacingly. The Fish said, "Glub glub glub!" then walked into the audience, instructing us individually that posing a certain way would make us shark-attack-immune. The Shark ignored this, however, and took big imaginary bites out of us all before returning to the playing area. "I wonder what will happen at the end of this play," someone said loudly from the audience. "We'll all be friends," the Fish explained. The Shark whispered a plot clue to my brother, who later told me that he'd said, "I'll probably eat the Fish." That turned out to be optimistic on his part.

"I hope the end will come soon," another spectator ventured. The Seal approached and whispered in my ear, "The play will end when we start the ending." Then he slithered off to crouch inside an overturned wicker table. ("The table is modernity," the fiance whispered to me.)

Eventually there was a snarling showdown between Shark and Seal, with the Seal, on his belly in the grass, doing most of the snarling (as the Fish ran around, shouting, "Glub! Glub! Glub!"). The younger, startled Shark protested, "You're a Seal! Seals are nice!" "We're not friends yet," the Seal reminded him, and us. "We're still mean friends." Then he raised himself to look the Shark in the eye and growled, "If you don't start being good, I will kill you."

The Shark was plainly uncertain whether this was part of the script or not. His mother saved him from potential death by announcing that she'd be going back inside in two minutes, which precipitated the long-awaited finale -- although to see it we had to stand up and leave our branch-piles behind, and follow the actors across the yard. And the Shark collapsed in not-very-professional tears when we accidentally clapped before the final tableau had been staged. We did see the characters reconcile, however, and the actors beamed as we applauded their efforts.

The whole thing was breathtakingly freeform; Richard Foreman could hardly have done better. "The play will end when we start the ending" could even be the title of his next project. If the kids were trying to break open boundaries and defy all our expectations, they succeeded mightily. I think that must have been their aim, because later, the Fish said to her father, "Dad, you missed the whole show! ...It was awesome."

The next morning, I asked the two 4-year-olds what their play was called. "Underwater", the Seal answered. "Underwater Fish," said the Fish. And the Seal said, "It was called Underwater...All the Animals at the Circus...Show." Which is, of course, exactly what I would have guessed. I repeated the title, to verify it (we're serious about fact-checking here at Restricted View): "Underwater All the Animals at the Circus Show?" And he said, "Yes. Because it was so fun for the actors to be in."

All I can say is, the next show I see has a tough act to follow.

[Elsewhere on Restricted View: this cast photo.]


Anonymous said...

I would like to hear John Colapinto's take on Underwater All the Animals at the Circus Show. Will they be touring anytime soon?


Ed said...

This was amazing. Thank you, Mollie!

Mollie said...

I think this was a one-time-only event, but with proper funding perhaps they could put together an extended run, or become a resident improv company somewhere. I'd back it in a second -- especially since there is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of adorable Wilson grandkids to replenish the cast as the older ones move on to motion-picture deals, producing gigs, etc.