By Perry Tannenbaum
Launched in 1997 with an eerie multi-layered, multimedia production of Dracula in the crumbling ruins of the Carolina Theatre, Moving Poets has always been eclectic in its use of artforms and – devoutly edgy and occasionally inscrutable – unafraid of posing challenges to its audiences. Fueled by dancer-choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler and visual artist MyLoan Dinh, the company has always been international in scope, more likely to bring us Moulin Rouge, Salomé, Swan Lake, 1001 Arabian Nights or Johannesburg Stories than You Can’t Take It With You. Though Schmidt-Rimpler hailed from Germany and Dinh was a refugee of the Vietnam War, the issues of immigration and treatment of refugees were nowhere near the core of Moving Poets’ works – until long after the couple moved their company to Berlin in 2007.
The Syrian refugee crisis, reconnecting with Charlotte and the US, our great border wall scares, and caged refugee children brought those issues to the forefront. Heaven, the fifth stage of an ongoing We See Heaven Upside Down project launched by Dinh in 2015, has evolved from a visual arts project to a typically rich Moving Poets hybrid at Booth Playhouse. Original music was written by more than a half dozen composers. Dancers were deployed from the Movement Migration company and the Charlotte Ballet Academy. Native American and Mexican dance performances were also patched into a quilt woven by three different choreographers. With overlays of film, theater, video projection mapping, song, suitcase puppetry, and kinetic sculpture, Moving Poets fans and followers can expect the customary sensory onslaught with a few new twists.
Chiefly concerned with two child protagonists caged by border control hysteria, the storyline has a fairytale texture we haven’t seen from Moving Poets before. Danielle Lieberman and Nina Bischoff, sharing the role of Maria Helena, are separated from parents danced by Kim Jones and E.E. Balcos. Common sense, empathy, and human decency aren’t on Maria’s roadmap to freedom here. The key to liberation will only be theirs if they obtain the “lamp beside the golden door” from a narcissistic Pinocchio. This pointy-nosed puppet is greedily keeping the lamp among his hoarded treasures, unaware that giving up the lamp and helping Maria will enable him to become human. Without a traditional playbill and printed scenario, grasping the storyline proves uncommonly difficult, even for a Moving Poets mélange. If you scan the QR code with your smartphone, you can access a Moving Poets webpage that fills in many of the blanks – and you can find links, in wee small print, to biographical sketches and Chuck Sullivan’s “Fallen Moon Fallen Stars,” the foundational poem written for this project.
Arriving early enough with the proper scanning app, you can adequately prep for the show, or you can catch up during intermission. It’s clear, nevertheless, that more theatrical writing and acting added to this show – or a far fuller visual representation of Maria’s fantasy world in phantasmagorical scenic design, film, and projections – would make this developing Moving Poets production more comprehensible and moving. We shouldn’t have to be putting it all together after we get home and take the time to summon up a webpage. A more cohesive and coherent Heaven would certainly add impact to Lieberman and Bischoff’s performances and to Ballet Academy classmate Alex Griffith’s gangly Pinocchio. Lacking the supplementary program material or exposure to any prepublicity, people in the audience on opening night couldn’t have had any idea of what would set Maria free and, even after the charming lamp reveal, any clue that this story connected with Emma Lazarus or the Statue of Liberty.
The speaking and singing were only tied obliquely to Maria’s story, beginning with Alyce Cristina Vallejo, who started us off as a peppy Walk for Life exercise coach before she gave way to a world of migrant and refugee shadows projected on a scrim. The silhouetted lighting design by Eric Winkenwerder on the yet-unseen dancers was in satiric contrast to the aerobic self-help peppiness of Vallejo: this was our first glimpse of an immigrant wave in flight toward freedom and self-preservation. Early in Act 2, Katherine Goforth popped out of the audience as Mother Mary Katherine, recounted a phone conversation she’d had with a border wall apostle, and departed without making a connection with anyone else onstage.
Less vaudevillian than the cameos by Vallejo and Goforth, the singing performances of Cynthia Farbman Harris as Mother Mary were enhanced by their integration with the dancers’. Farbman actually visited the imprisoned children, bestowed upon them a gift too small to see, and soon revealed herself to be a Ukrainian immigrant as she sang nostalgically and zestfully of her old Jewish shtetl, “Belz,” surrounded by most of the troupe. Mother Mary returned near the end, startlingly altered (or converted?) as she sang “Ave Maria.” Equally unexpected, Rosalia Torres-Weiner peeped in with her suitcase puppetry for a prison visit as Mother Mary, her little shtick delightfully projected by video designer Shawn Gillis onto an upstage screen.
Much of Schmidt-Rimpler’s choreography still asks plenty of floor work from his dancers, which makes it a bad fit for the reconfigured Booth Playhouse. While they’ve lifted the orchestra section closer to stage level during their renovation process, they’ve also leveled the floor near the stage, so the rows of seats closest to the stage don’t immediately slope upwards. Sitting in the fourth row – in an uncomfortable chair – I had to play peekaboo between the heads of nearer patrons to track the action as it moved across the stage floor. Overall, however, I found the fortified choreographic mix to be delightful as the Poets’ music seemed to reach a higher plateau. As composer and percussionist, David Crowe continues to be a prime mover among the live musicians perched in the Booth balcony, with rock hall-of-famer Tom Constanten at the keyboard. Saxophonist Joe Wilson adds new fire to the ensemble with his European wailings, and there is more electronic music emanating from the soundbooth than I remember at previous Moving Poets productions. The founders’ son, Kalvin Schmidt-Rimpler Dinh, is likely the digital culprit, another auspicious sign.
Whatever indignities have been heaped on the floor and the audience seating, lights and sound are wonderful at the Booth. Aside from additional spoken and scenic context, Dinh and Schmidt-Rimpler ought to consider discreetly outfitting their performers with body mikes. Back in the olden days when Poets first shocked Charlotte, they went with two Draculas, actor Graham Smith speaking the role and Schmidt-Rimpler reprising the vampire he had portrayed with NC Dance of Theatre. Neither of the Marias in Heaven is an actress, and Poets has laudably decided to stretch their young artists’ capabilities. In the meanwhile, some amplification would be beneficial to us all.