North Adams Transcript


August 2, 2012

If you know someone that is not taking their children to see “Communications from a Cockroach: Archy and the Underside,” please report them for child abuse for imposing such a barbarous deprivation.

The show is by the Mettawee River Theater Company at 8 p.m. at Windsor Lake in North Adams, this Saturday. The best part is the mercy shown toward your pocketbook- the show is free. At the end of the performance, they pass around a hat if you have money to spare. Much of the humor is more for adults than children, but the children will catch many of the jokes as well.

Every year since 1976, the Mettawee River Theater Company has taken its plays using breathtaking, oversized puppets and mask, and beautifully quirky scenery, to areas in upstate New York, Western Massachusetts, and Southern Vermont.

Not all the puppeteers are hiding. Earth tone-costumed actors/puppeteers with faces fully shown handle the puppets and act. In their own way they transmit variant facial expression and body movements to the wooden face of the puppet, making them come to life like Pinocchio, with actor and puppet becoming one. At other times, the players are entombed in colossal puppets, and at other times, they don surreal masks. All are tools to cast a spell that entraps young and old alike with visions and story. There is invariably accompanying music and singing. This year’s “Communications from a Cockroach,” which I was delighted to see when the show was performed in Pittsfield, features a vibraphone, sax, clarinet and double bass.

There are a select few that leave the world a more beautiful place – Ralph Lee is one. Lee joined the company in its second season in 1976, and has been with them ever since. He is the artistic director, makes the puppets and masks, and often helps adapt the source work into a script.

His vision is to bring theater to those that ordinarily can’t afford theater.

These are not second-rate actors. The company applies for grants from such places as the National Endowments for the Arts, the New York Council on Art, government agencies and other foundations. Lee’s wife, Casey Compton, is the managing director and does the grant writing. Compton has created costumes, acted in the company from ’75 until ’85, and founded the company along with five fellow graduates from Bennington College.

From grants and passing the hat, they can pay as well as a lower-rung Equity theater.

Mr. Lee tells me that “people are getting more and more detached from the natural world,” and the productions focus on getting back to our roots.

Every year, the Mettawee River Theater Company comes up with a new summer performance and takes the show on the road. The show is brought to audiences that would often not be able shell out $150 for two theater tickets. Many of the plays are taken from myths from all corners of the globe, from all ages – stories that touch the universal human spirit. They are adaptations of myths from sources such as the Ainu people who live on the northern islands of Japan (The Old Boat Goddess); Greek myth (Persephone); or a Mayan creation myth (The Popol Vuh Project).

Other sources include the Brothers Grimm (The Bremen Town Musicians); “a Coney Island ballad opera” (Barnacle Bill the Husband); the Arabian Nights (Caravan of Dreams); Apuleius, a Latin author (Psyche); the ancient Greek writer of comedies Aristophanes (Peace); a play by Bertolt Brecht, a German poet and playwright in the first half of the 20th Century (The Caucasian Chalk Circle); and Shakespeare (The Tempest).

Lee tells me that unfortunately, they get short-shifted by newspapers who fail to send critics because they don’t acknowledge free outdoor theater. Nonetheless, no less than the New York Times said of Communications of a Cockroach: “Four actors, a dozen or so puppets, the appropriately off-kilter set and an enthusiasm for treating grown-up subjects playfully make this modest one-act production a pleasure.”

The show is based on series of comedic sketches from a newspaper column of the early 20th century, “Archy and Mehitabel,” where Archy is a poet reincarnated as a cockroach, and Mehitabel is a female alley cat and Archy’s friend.

Now get you and your children there before I call the cops on you.

Rinaldo Del Gallo III is a frequent contributor to the Transcript.

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