By Charles Mee Jr.; Directed by Kim Weild
Produced by Our Voices and New Ohio in collaboration with IRT Theater
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.17.17
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street
by Ran Xia on 6.5.17
JW Guido, Estelle Bajou, and John Ford Dunker in Soot and Spit. Photo by Nina Wurtzel.
BOTTOM LINE: This multifaceted celebration of artist James Castle's life and works is a compassionate exploration of otherness.
Although James Castle (JW Guido) was "in hindsight...autistic," he was born "deaf and dumb," the narrator (Chris Lopes) tells us in a gentle voice. "Deaf and dumb"—those few feeble words sealed Castle's fate of a lifetime of silence and isolation. To James Castle, the letters of the alphabet were more picturesque mysteries than basic modules of language; he didn't learn to sign all that much either. His community, in idyllic Garden Valley, didn't have the means to understand Jimmy the Dummy's inner world, and treated him more or less with the benign pity and tolerance one might have towards a harmless yet nevertheless frustrating appendage.
Art becomes a necessity then, and James sharpens sticks, mixes soot with his own spit, and starts to draw obsessively. What's inside of him bursts out in lines and splashes of innocence and curious confusion about everything that's around him. All that's black and white triggers a liveliness that makes you understand how through creating art, he is finally able to become the king of his very own infinite space, albeit confined in the nutshell of his disabilities. He draws on laundry sheets and old boxes, on brown paper bags, and sometimes on dollar bills. He binds books, probably inspired by photo albums, and finds inspiration from the various images from product packages in his family's general store.
Director Kim Weild creates a world of fascination based on playwright Charles Mee's wildly imaginative, utterly surreal, and deeply intimate device. A collage of characters converge onto the stage that is a celebration of James Castle's life in vibrant colors. Bluegrass music accompanies scenes of small town living where young girls in aprons bake pies and, leaning on windowsills, pine for their lovers. The luminance and cacophony contrast with scenes of relative stillness when James is alone behind his small wooden desk, assembling objects or drawing on any and all found materials. With Matthew Imhoff's clever set design, the clutter of paper stacks connects the space between reality and Castle's memories, making the world of soot and spit ever more tangible for the audience.
Just as in Sunday In the Park with George, where we interpret the world through Seurat's eyes, we absorb Castle's world through his unique perspective. However, the concept of "the artist who lives in his own world" gets quite a different definition here. With his perpetual childlike wonder, Castle is spirited away by inanimate objects, and because he lives in silence, he hears more than anyone else: the secret conversation between cats and household appliances; and the characters in cartoons and on saltine cracker ads who speak to him in the secret ways that only he understands. Because Castle cannot connect in words, his inner world becomes ever larger than life, which brings us to the highlight of the show: the costume design by Haley Peterson, with Jennifer Anderson and artisan Cybele Moon, crafted in true James Castle aesthetics with found materials. The creatures of Castle's imagination are a menagerie of anthropomorphic beings dressed in cardboard outfits, with boxes as feet and heads. They stumble around the artist as if his very own guardian angel, safeguarding him from the consuming loneliness. The delightful clumsiness of Donnie Mather's choreography is a touch of genius.
Another noteworthy element of the production is the diversity of the cast, which is both racially inclusive and provides opportunities for people with disabilities: two of the cast members (including Chris Lopes, the narrator) have Down's syndrome; Guido, being deaf himself, achieves an authentic and moving portrayal of the self-taught outsider artist. Such inclusiveness, which is both Mee's emphasis and Our Voices' goal, indeed makes the production exemplary.
The multifaceted production successfully brings to life James Castle's life in ways that are at once entertaining and heartbreaking. However, there are moments during the show where I hoped for more distinction between Castle's experience inside of his inner world, and his experience whilst with others. The rich auditory stimulations (songs, fiddle music, and the gorgeously bizarre yet absolutely compelling monologues) indeed elevate the production at times. But the constancy of them also distracts from truly getting a taste of Castle's experience of the world; the stillness of the artist becomes buried amidst the general hustle and bustle of country life. I would hope for the brutality of silence to sediment, in order to truly understand the unique voices that only James Castle can hear.
You can check out a collection of James Castle's works currently on display on the seventh floor of the Whitney Museum. And as always, Chuck Mee's plays are available for free on his website, where you can let your mind wander in the poetry of soot and spit.
(soot and spit plays at New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, through June 17, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 15 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30. ASL interpreted performances Thursday 6/8 at 7:30 and Saturday 6/10 at 2. Autism-friendly performance Saturday 6/17 at 2. Tickets are $25 and are available at newohiotheatre.org.)
soot and spit is by Charles Mee Jr. Direction and Musical Staging is by Kim Weild. Choreography is by Donnie Mather. Set Design is by Matthew Imhoff. Media Design is by Boyd Branch. Lighting Design is by Paul Miller. Props Design is by Leontine Greenberg. Costume Design is by Haley Peterson. Associate Costume Designer is Jennifer Anderson. Costume Crafts Artisan is Cybele Moon. Orchestration/Arrangement is by Daniel Puccio. Sound Design is by Andy Evan Cohen. Music Direction is by Dan Pardo. Production Stage Manager is Michael J. Tosto. Production Manager is Scott H. Schneider. Assistant Lighting Designer is Annie Wiegand. Assistant Director is Jenna Hoffmann. Scenic Design Consultant is Edward Pierce.
The cast is Robert Ariza, Karen Ashino Hara, Estelle Bajou, Alida Rose Delaney, John Ford Dunker, JW Guido, Peregrine Heard, Toussaint Jeanlouis, Geraldine Leer, Christopher Lopes, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, and Arielle Yoder.