Whether it’s the result of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s proposed meeting with President Obama, on April 9, or Argentine president Cristina Kirchner’s slam on Monday, April 2, calling Britain’s continued holding of the Falkland’s “ridiculous and absurd,” South America has never seemed as much a part of the everyday American conversation as, well, when the original production of Evita came to town (another strong leader, she's back on Broadway for the first time since 1979).  Call it synchronicity, trend, cycle, or invasion, consider whether, compared to four years ago, you have met–or made friends with–more people who have lived in or visited South America; read more about the continent in the Guardian or the Drudge Report; or looked up John of God more often on YouTube. The emergence is even being reinforced Off-Off-Broadway, with Colombian artist Federico Restrepo’s Urban Odyssey, a dance puppet piece at La MaMa, now running through April 8.  Unsurprisingly, it reminds us of Ellen Stewart’s sensibility—and love for the visual–and the old, unashamed leftists in the avant-garde around the Village, writing impermanent pieces to change single minds or preach to the choir. Although the show doesn’t feel especially new in terms of technique, it does make you wonder what would ever be done without this kind of political Theatre should, like Stewart, it not be here one day. Restrepo, with his longtime collaborators, including co-creator Denise Greber, composer Elizabeth Swados, and  arranger Kris Kukul, has been mounting pieces for his company, Loco7 (fourteen in all), since 1986.  The current work chronicles the immigration experience, from a Colombian childhood to today’s housing crisis (especially topical since we are told a second difficult period in the market is coming). The story (text is by Elias Khoury, as well as Swados) punctuates the journey to naturalization, and beyond, with hot-button labels, such as terrorism, genocide, drugs, and prostitution. It also talks about feelings you won’t have to be Colombian to understand, including loneliness: “I’m lost and I’m afraid and I’m in despair and I’m wavering and I’m fidgeting and I remember I’m forgotten” and rootlessness: “We became strangers to one another; the villages weren’t villages anymore, and the people became strangers.” Perhaps, most cautionary is the line, “Don’t you know you have to live in fear and terror?” My favorite of them all: “It is difficult for someone my age to begin again.”  

Of course, from time to time, everyone should see the masks and huge, sometimes grotesque puppets in small, especially dark, hole-in-the-wall Village theatres (the puppeteers are Rocky Bostick, Kiku Sakai, and Kayla Schetter).  You’ll see, in a work like Urban Odyssey, written by veterans, but also elsewhere–in other work by younger playwrights around the city–the love of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the love of those politics, those social issues.  You'll also feel the freedom of the avant-garde, which can seem like a relief after knock-‘em-dead, polished pieces of highly commercial entertainment uptown.  In an ideal world, in a utopian world, in an anarchist world, people really would make going to theatre as much a part of the week as having pizza night, but, sometimes, going to La MaMa is just about as close as anyone can get, once or twice a year. Swados’s spontaneous music, a virtually continuous flow of drums, flute, synthesizer, piano, violin, chimes, electric guitar in global rhythms, is played by Kari Bethke, John Sully, and Martin Wallace. The hard-working, motivated dance ensemble, clear in characterization, includes Penelope Armstead-Williams, Ching-I Chang, Maura Nguyen Donohue, Denise Greber, Gilbert Reyes, and Kayla Schetter. Restrepo himself is one of them, too, confronting the American experiment shirtless or with hooves, creating the universal dance of progressive issues.

© 2012 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.  Thanks to Robin Goldfin for talking to me about dance.

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

La MaMa in association with Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of Urban Odyssey, a dance puppet theatre piece conceived by Federico Restrepo and Denise Greber, designed, directed and choreographed by Federico Restrepo, with original music composed by Obie Award Winner Elizabeth Swados, and text by Elias Khoury. Loco7 is celebrating their 25th Anniversary season this year. Urban Odyssey, part of La MaMa’s 50th Anniversary season, runs Off-Broadway from March 22 – April 8, 2012 in a limited engagement at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, located at 66 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue & the Bowery in New York City.

Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm. The Sunday, April 1 show will be streamed worldwide at 2:30pm at http://LaMaMa.org and http://www.CultureHub.org. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors and can be purchased online at http://LaMaMa.org, in person at the box office or by calling 212-475-7710. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. The show’s appropriate for ages twelve and up. La MaMa is accessible from the F train to 2nd Ave. or the #6 train to Bleecker St. For more information visit http://www.Loco7.org.

Urban Odyssey depicts the experience of immigration to America through movement and visual theatre. This new work is the culmination of a ten-year investigation that began in 2002 with a production created from Federico Restrepo’s personal experience as a Colombian immigrant. The first episode 9 Windows revealed a series of multi-media experiences of being a displaced immigrant. The second episode Open Door (2006) addressed the impact of the many immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds that make up NYC; revealing their histories and states of mind. The third episode Room to Panic (2008) depicted the joy, fear, alienation and struggle that reveal the allure, disillusionments and rites of passage to achieve the American Dream. Urban Odyssey will merge all these concepts, creating an epic journey that acknowledges the inevitability of a new American culture. A voyage of human experience, from leaving ones homeland, to finding a new country, to making a new home and setting down roots.

The NY Times called Loco7’s Room to Panic an “elegant multimedia show…consistently touching and evocative” and described Open Door as “a striking, evocative theater experience.” Back Stage lauded Open Door as a “fantastic multimedia work” that “impresses as a work of whirling intelligence.” NYTheatre.com called In Retrospect “a memorable experience to ponder and treasure…the production is never less than awe-inspiring” and The Village Voice described Bokan, the Bad Hearted as “magical.”

 The cast includes Federico Restrepo, Penelope J. Armstead-Williams, Ching-I Chang (Sleep No More), Maura Donohue (In Mixed Company Artistic Director), Denise Greber, Rob Laqui (MOMIX’s Botanica) and Gilbert Reyes, along with puppeteers Rocky Bostick, Kiku Sakai and Kayla Schetter.

The creative and design team includes Kris Kukul (Arrangement and Musical Direction), Federico Restrepo and Angela “Nena” Sierra (Video Edit and Design), Catarina Leitao (Tent Puppet Design), Federico Restrepo (Set and Lighting Design), Denise Greber (Costume Design) and Adriana Garcia-Pena (Production Technical Director).

Under the direction and vision of Federico Restrepo, Loco7 has been in existence since 1985. Loco7’s mission has been to develop the use of puppetry as an instrument for the dancer, a style that incorporates dance and design. Utilizing rhythmic music, dancers, body puppets and larger then life marionettes, Restrepo weaves a choreography that extends beyond the body of the dancer. Dealing with themes such as South American Culture and History, the immigrants’ experience and urban life, Restrepo creates an animated movement, in an ever-changing and surreal environment, bringing the stage to life.

Federico Restrepo (Co-Creator/Director/Designer/Choreographer) was born in Bogota, Colombia and founded his company, Loco7, at La MaMa in 1986 to expand the use of puppetry in dance theatre. With Loco7 he has created over twelve original productions, and acted as the creator, director and designer. As a performer Restrepo appeared at La MaMa as a member of the Great Jones Repertory Company in numerous shows by Ellen Stewart. He is a resident choreographer, director, puppet designer and performer of La MaMa.

Denise Greber (Co-Creator) is an artist in resident at La MaMa, where she has been performing, designing and touring internationally over the past twelve years. For the past five years she has been the curator for the La MaMa Puppet Series, an annual event that brings international and national artists to La MaMa over a month long period.

Elizabeth Swados (Composer) is known for her Broadway and international smash hit Runaways. She has composed, written and directed for over thirty years. Some of her works include the Obie Award-winning Trilogy at La MaMa, Alice at the Palace with Meryl Streep at the New York Shakespeare Theater Festival and Groundhog, which was optioned by Milos Forman for a film. Her awards include five Tony nominations, three Obie Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Helen Hayes Award.

Elias Khoury (Text/Writer) is a Lebanese novelist, playwright, critic and a prominent public intellectual. He has published ten novels, which have been translated into several foreign languages, as well as several works of literary criticism. He has also written three plays. Between 1993 and 2009 he served as editor of Al-Mulhaq, the weekly cultural supplement of the Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Nahar.

This project was made possible in part with public funds from The Jim Henson Foundation; NALAC Diverse Arts Spaces Grant Program and the Ford Foundation Diverse Arts Spaces; Manhattan Community Arts Fund, supported by New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the WNYC STAR Initiative.

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