I don't want to give too much away, because the best parts about Petruchska (plays through April 22) should be stumbled upon – like many of the steps I almost tripped over while wending my way with the rest of opening night audience through the dark passages inside the transformed Madrona Bathhouse studios, where Spectrum Dance Theater has its enviable home.
Petruchska is a classic ballet written by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (you may remember him from such canonical works as The Firebird). The story follows a puppet (played here by Vincent Michael Lopez) who performs along with other puppets at the beck and call of a cruel and demanding puppet master. As if things couldn’t get worse, poor Petruchska falls for fellow puppet Columbine (Jade Solomon Curtis), who does not share his affection. But Petruchska decides not to go down without a fight.
Artistic director and choreographer at Spectrum, Donald Byrd (whom I profile in our April issue) has adapted this classic story, changing not only the spelling of the name – but exploding the entire format in a fresh and vigorous contemporary exploration. Byrd's staging travels from beach, to corridor, to television screen; on and off stage and in and out of the elements. He risks rain and even accessibility in order to get us closer to, or more mixed up in the emotional dilemma of Petruchska, who, no matter how trapped and powerless he seems, desperately perseveres.
Staging the show like an immersive carnival, Spectrum for the first time uses the entire bathhouse building, including the roof (next time – I hope they incorporate the barge floating nearby). Dancers moving among dimly lit hallways and wearing stark white masks give it the feel of a haunted house – or a carnival run with nefarious intentions (Uh, are you sure I should go this way?). Carnival performers haunt the outdoor stage before the show, maybe to entertain you, or maybe to trick you? A funny and loquacious Master of Ceremonies or “The Charlatan”, played by the always impressive Donald Jones Jr., seems both confidently in charge of the chaos he manages—and also emotionally unhinged.
Using three separate stages (one of which the audience can see only via live video feed; and thanks to great camera work is pulled off with amazing, visceral effect), Spectrum Dance Theater catapults the whimsical Pinocchio-like tale into a gritty and unnerving window into the lives of prisoners who perhaps aren't fully aware of their imprisonment.
From the screams of the puppets as their puppet master hangs them from the walls, to the hot-and-heavy sex acts played out between the Moor puppet (Ty Alexander Cheng) and Columbine, almost in pantomime; to the fierce physical prowess of the Spectrum dancers that always half-enchants and half-scares me; to, finally, the ultimate act that ended (accidentally) with shards of a broken light bulb flying across the stage - the show is terrifying, captivating and deliciously real.
Donald Byrd has traveled to new risky heights in his mastery of using dancers’ bodies to tell the darkest and most primal pieces of the human story.
And to anyone distracted by the “technical difficulties” we saw in the first run, opening night, I hope you noticed the moment where the music suddenly cut out and Lopez (Petruchska) slowly departed the stage with only the sounds of the waves from Lake Washington lapping the shore to accompany him—it was one of the more haunting, effective moments in theater I've seen in Seattle. The ones that happen by accident usually are.
Spectrum Dance, I’ll take your work any day—“technical difficulties” and all.
GO SEE IT
Ongoing through 4/22. Times and prices vary.
Spectrum Dance Theater, 800 Lake Washington Blvd.; 206.325.4161; spectrumdance.org
PHYSICAL ACCESS: For Petruchska, audience members will be asked to follow the performance as it moves from one location to another at Madrona Park and into the building, including a short set of stairs from the park into the building and a long flight of stairs leading up to the studio theater. Audience members who would like to attend but who have mobility issues should call to discuss special arrangements: 206.325.4161.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Petruchska is a story about puppets, but it is not a story for children. Parents are advised of sexual and violent content.