A Story Beyond: A Musical Fable - Liars and Believers
A Story Beyond: A Musical Fable – Liars and Believers
Review by James Wilkinson
A Story Beyond: A Musical Fable is presented by Liars and Believers. Written by Jason Slavick and Rachel Wiese. Directed by Jason Slavick. Music and Lyrics by Nathan Leigh. Puppetry Design and Direction: Faye Dupras. Costume Design: Kendra Bell. Lighting Design: PJ Strachman. Scenic Design and Props Master: Rebecca Lehrhoff. Mask Design: Becca Jewett.
Liars and Believers’ new production, A Story Beyond: A Musical Fable, ended up being my favorite kind of theatrical experience. The kind where you go with barely any knowledge of what you’re walking into, the house lights go down, the stage lights come up and the expectations you didn’t know that you had end up being shattered. You’re not so much presented with a world to observe but rather, you’re invited into that world, given the chance to let the experience surround you. It washes over with a warm glow and you don’t want to leave. The production’s theatrical vocabulary is drawing from inspirations older than the Greeks, but it manages to employ that vocabulary with a zing that gives it an energy that feels of the moment.
I loved it….Can you tell?
I’ll try to keep my gushing to the minimum (nobody likes a drip), but A Story Beyond was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a theater for a while. It manages to work on just about every level. You can ride along its wave and enjoy the aesthetic pleasure that it’s radiating, or you can go deeper and chew over the ways that it’s intellectually working on you. It’s difficult even to provide a basic summary of the plot because it takes a while for the production to reveal what its actual through-line is going to be. There’s a bit of a Russian doll element to its set-up; or maybe it’s more appropriate to describe it as circles within circles with a string of pearls to follow at the center.
The largest circle, I suppose is that of a traveling theatre troupe. Rebecca Lehrhoff’s scenic design and Kendra Bell’s costume design suggest a kind of eastern European world from long ago. The cart that takes the actors from place to place is settled center stage. The actors’ laundry hangs off to the side and while the masks and props they’ll soon use cling to the sides. When you get to the performance space, the actors are mingling about. A cellist and mandolinist are warming up with fractures of music triggering impromptu song and dance. When the show begins, it starts with the actors singing a tale of a woman who delays her death at the hands of a fox by distracting the fox with stories. We’re not going to hear what happens to this Scheherazade-like figure, but the power and art of storytelling is going to be at the forefront at what we see for the next ninety minutes. With the aid of masks, puppets, music and a couple of crates, the troupe tells the story of Maya, a young girl seeking help for a tragedy. A dark cloud has appeared in the skies above her village and the villagers (including her grandmother) are turning to lead. Convinced that the answer must be someone out beyond the village’s borders, Maya travels out into the world for the knowledge of how to help her community.
The tone of Maya’s story invokes a certain kind of Jewish folklore (which I don’t know enough about, so I’ll leave that for others to comment on), but the production’s reach is really much wider. What happens to Maya is the spine of a story that pulls in mythology from a number of cultures and communities, mythology that details the creation of the elemental forces of nature. The plot keeps getting distracted by these ‘smaller’ tales along the way and tells them in sometimes achingly beautiful music. (Music and lyrics are by Nathan Leigh and a wonderful score that pulses along with the story). This is a production that‘s interested in the very core of storytelling. In how, at the dawn of mankind, storytelling had the kind of power to build the world around us and give it meaning. The closest comparison I can think of is Homer’s The Odyssey with Maya taking the role of a young female Odysseus trekking out into the world. It’s interested in how storytelling builds communities and cultures, how it connects the generations. Maya, we learn, comes from a long line of women who weave stories into the fabric they make. She’s hesitant to take up the loom but by the end she’ll learn just how necessary that storytelling is.
With its collection of “poor theatre” techniques, I think there’ll be some temptation to connect Liars and Believers show to Hub Theatre’s recent production of Peter and the Starcatcher. No disrespect to Hub’s fine production, but I think I liked this one more. It feels more intimate; it touches on something a bit deeper in your core. When you arrive at A Story Beyond, the actors will walk right up to you and introduce themselves. They’ll ask you how you are and where you came from. This is the kind of fourth wall breaking that can be particularly cringey (particularly if you have an audience member who refuses to give an inch), but here it feels like a necessary component to the evening and I’d encourage you to open up. The direct interaction develops the feeling that we’re listening to a story from an old friend. It builds that sense of community.
It feels wrong to pick out individuals to praise in the production because each element supports the other like a house of cards. Taking out one would just make the whole thing collapse. Director Jason Slavick has an amazing team individuals working together. The script is by him and Rachel Wiese, who also doubles as troupe member Isabel. The actors are a joy to watch, as are the Jeff Butcher and Bri Tagliaferro, the evening’s musicians. Every design element seems to let the production radiate from within.
If you look up during A Story Beyond you might notice a few lanterns hanging from the lighting grid. As the lights dim in the final moments of the show, those lanterns will be your final image. They’ll be the last lights to go out as you’re sent into darkness and then kicked back to the street. You can’t live in the world Liars and Believers has created, but what a place to visit.
A Story Beyond: A Musical Fable is presented by Liars and Believers at the Boston Center for the Arts December 6-22, 2018
For tickets and information, visit their website: www.liarsandbelievers.com