by Chris Berger
I had never been to The Nebraska Repertory Theatre before. I had been to the Temple Building for a meeting, but never saw a production, and so I was very excited to go and see my first play there. The theatre is a cozy space that seats 333 people and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Little did I know that my first experience with this theatre would be such a memorable one.
Full disclosure: I love puppets and puppeteering. I grew up on Sesame Street, The Muppets and Sid & Marty Kroft shows. I always found the puppets at every fair, festival, and local mall I visited. My childhood best friend and I put on puppet shows for his parents almost every weekend. For me, any time is a good time for a puppet show, and the more creative and inventive, the better. With this show, that’s exactly what you are going to get – and a whole lot more.
This production is devised theatre. According to an article I read on their website, devised theatre is: “a method of theatre-making in which the script originates from a collaborative, often improvisatory work by a performing ensemble.” In other words, the director and the actors start with an idea and then make the whole thing up during a longer than usual rehearsal process. There is no script or story until they all start creating in rehearsal. As with anything the results of such a process will vary, but in the case of A Thousand Words it works spectacularly.
I am reluctant to write too much or get too specific about this play, as I would hate to spoil anything about it. It really needs to be seen to be believed. This show is a mixture of actors and puppets and combinations of both. It is animated scenery and shadowplay. It is lighting effects, sound effects, and music. It feels old school and traditional and at the same time fresh and new. It is part hero’s journey, part history lesson, and part a life examined. It is funny and heartbreaking and spellbinding and expertly performed. This is no mere sock puppet and marionette show – it’s so much more. And it will take you by surprise in a good way. Yes, puppets will make you cry.
The play is centered around the main character of “Grandpa”. Grandpa serves as the narrator and guide through the life of one Jeremiah Wolcott, a character that we follow from the cradle (and slightly before) to the grave. Jeremiah is a young man from western Nebraska, and we experience his life through short scenes and stories told by Grandpa and performed by the actors and puppeteers. One of the several elements that ties the show together is a lullaby that is sung to Jeremiah by his mother and then by Jeremiah to his child and could be considered a central theme of the story: “You remind me that I’m always forgiven, you remind me that I’m always loved…You remind me that I’m good enough.”
The ensemble cast in this show do an amazing job with all they are given. The two actors that perform Grandpa, Matt Blom and Phillip Crawford, are dressed and hooded head-to-toe in black and quickly disappear into the background as you find yourself focusing in on the Grandpa puppet. This is a huge testament to their skill with the puppet and the voice acting that goes along with it. I was enthralled the moment the character walked onstage. Yes, you read that right; this puppet walks.
The other six actors that comprise the ensemble – Godelyn Anghay, Grace Debetaz, Michaella Deladia, Connor Garrison, Will Hayes, and Claire McClannan play all the other parts in the show magnificently. And there are many other parts. I can’t imagine bouncing around between all the characters the way they did and keeping everything straight. This cast does an amazing job. The director, Andy Park, and his assistant director, Kate Schini, have done a fantastic job at coordinating and putting this all together. I can’t imagine putting a show like this together and they really pulled it off. The scenic, lighting, costume, video, and sound design all come together perfectly to really create a fantastic mood and environment that is perfect for this show. I’m going to assume that all of these technical elements were under the watchful eye of Karen Husband, the technical director, and kudos to her and Stage Manager Kasey Dunaski for assembling & coordinating what has to be a very complex production. I’m not sure which actor did the Grandpa voice, but his work with Dialect Coach Ann Marie Pollard was just perfect, and I was really taken with the character’s voice.
I would be extremely remiss if I did not point out and highlight the excellent work of the Puppet Designer & Fabricator Jill Hibbard. What she has done here is just wonderful. Seeing all the varied puppets (over 100, I think) and the animated scenery was something that touched back to my childhood when I saw puppetry for the first time and was completely taken with the art. I was literally gawking in wide-eyed wonder at many points in the show.
Aside from one off-color word that you can honestly hear on primetime TV and a hilarious sequence that shows a puppet version of a sperm fertilizing an egg, I would say that this show has something for everyone, young and old. I absolutely loved it and would see again in a heartbeat. If you like puppets, you’ll love it. If you don’t like puppets, you will after you see this. This takes something that you think you know and turns it into something really unexpected and wonderful.
If you go: Remaining performances of A Thousand Words are February 14, 15, and 18-22 at 7:30 pm, with matinees at 2:00 pm on February 16 and 23. All performances are in the Temple Building on the UNL campus at the corner of 12th and R Streets. Tickets are available online and at the door prior to performances (depending on availability).
Chris Berger is a local actor, professional pirate, and podcast co-host of The Platte River Bard, a podcast that highlights the local Omaha-Lincoln arts community that he does with his wife, Sheri.
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