by Michael Bracken
The medium is the message, said Marshall McCluhan, and Manual Cinema’s Lula del Ray, part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, bears him out with a vengeance. How it’s told is really more important than what it tells. Too bad neither how nor what is completely satisfying.
Lula’s story is a simple take on a common saw. A young girl, an ardent fan of singing sensation the Baden Brothers, plays their music so loud or so much that her mother breaks her copy of their record. The girl, who turns out to be Lula, which you wouldn’t know if you didn’t read your program, packs her bag and runs off to the city, where she makes an unsuccessful attempt to hook up with the two crooners.
So what is the medium that’s functioning as message? Well, there are several, and theater, at least in the traditional sense, is not one of them. Lula is technology – low tech, that is – driven. Video, live feed cameras, overhead projectors, and lights come together to create a world populated by shadows and two-dimensional images.
Two screens, where the narrative unfolds, dominate the stage. The larger one is front and center, with a slightly smaller version behind and under it. Both are visible at all times. Onto the screens are cast drawings, shadows of puppets, and shadows of two of the puppeteers, Charlotte Long (as Lula) and Sara Sawicki (as her mother). (Lizi Breit and Sam Deutsch are the other puppeteers.)
Shadows of the actresses are somehow transposed as they display on the two screens – if Lula is facing left on one screen, she’s facing right on the other. Both women wear their silver and blue hair in buns, with Mom’s particularly oversized. But why give them brightly colored hair if only their shadows appear on-screen? Because watching the puppeteers scurry around, placing and removing slides from the projectors, calculating their movement to make sure their silhouettes do or don’t get projected onto the screens is as much the point as what’s on the screens.
Two guitarists (Michael Hilger and Eric Streichert) and a celloist (Kyle Vegter), as well as a vocalist (Maren Celest) are on hand to enliven the proceedings, often with a twang in honor of the country-western Badens. The music can also sound like New Age with an edge and at times even emits a faint breath of Pink Floyd.
The screen images we see are often striking, sometimes clever, but ultimately they’re just pretty pictures. Watching the puppeteers create the images is a more rewarding exercise but it too falls short. The problem is that while witnessing technique can be quite pleasurable for a while, that pleasure has a limited shelf life, which Lula del Ray lavishly exceeds. At a mere 75 minutes, it seems overlong.
Lula del Ray was conceived by Julia Miller, based on original text by Brendan Hill. It’s designed and directed by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia Miller.
Through January 14th at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street).
www.undertheradarfestival.com. 75 minutes with no intermission.