BOTTOM LINE: Has a lot of heart and vision but completely misses its audience.
As I was exiting the theater after seeing Aunt Leaf, a child sitting in the row in front of me turned to her mother and asked with complete sincerity, "What just happened?" I didn't catch the mother's response, but I wish I had, because I have the same question. Aunt Leaf is sort of theater for the future-pseudo-intellectual. It involves quite a bit of thought and head cocking on the part of the audience, and when you finally do get what's going on, it feels like an academic triumph.
Now, I think there is a place out there for such projects. Some people like to have to really work at a show, but that said, as part of the StartHERE: Innovative Theater for Young People series, Aunt Leaf completely misses its audience by billing itself as a children's show. I, as a reasonably intelligent adult, would not be able to recount the story if I were not provided a press kit to tell me what was going on, and the children in the audience were not afforded that luxury. What I observed around me was a house full of fantastically behaved, very polite and very confused young people.
To the best that I could gather, Aunt Leaf is about a young girl who begins to make up slightly creepy stories and past them off as truths in order to entertain her very elderly aunt. The narrative of the show, as well as the stories, is told by an ensemble of three actors. The actors intermingle, interact and overlap to simultaneously tell these stories. Characters are sometimes played by all three actors in what feels like the course of one sentence making it very difficult to tell which character is speaking and subsequently follow the story effectively. Although the cast is extremely talented, there are major bumps in both the writing of the piece, and the conception, that they are only able to overcome on a rare sparkling occasion.
Now, that that's out of the way, Aunt Leaf does have some fantastically redeeming qualities for both adults and children. The piece is inspired by the tradition of folklore and literature in the Hudson River Valley region of New York and this backdrop is clearly reflected in the visual elements of the show. The design team created an inspired and cohesive setting for the piece. The lighting, set, ridiculously cool projections, and costumes flow beautifully into one another and compliment each other as if they had all sprung from the same mind. The standout in the strong design is undoubtedly Robert Flynt's projections. His images are well chosen and applied and he took otherwise confusing moments and turned them into crazy whirlwinds of image and visual stimulation. There are moments that the story is taken into the woods and he completely bathes the set in perfectly balances rays of leaves and muddy woodsy colors and other moments where creepy projections of century old photos of people appear on the walls to a delightfully creepy effect. The kids in the audience seemed particularly excited by the moments that the projections worked well.
Aunt Leaf appears to be a very well-produced piece. The actors are constantly on the ball despite an incredibly complex series of lines, stops and starts. The production aspects meld smoothly with the material and Jeffery Mousseau's direction has made some really lovely moments out of some incredibly jumble words, it's unfortunate that it seems to be playing to an audience that is a complete misfit for this show.
(Aunt Leaf plays at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave, through January 24th. Remaining performances are Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 2pm and 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children and are available at ovationtix.com. For more information visit here.org.)