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AN AILING KING asks each of his three daughters to find a cure for his fatal illness, promising his kingdom to the daughter who succeeds. Two of the daughters are vain bitches, but the youngest truly loves old Dad, and haphazardly falls, like Alice, through a mossy underworld of weird creatures on a very archetypal journey as she seeks eternal life, as it were, for her father.
The Vashon-based UMO ensemble combines three lesser-known Grimm Brothers stories in Expressions of the Spirit, abetting the production with truly clever, metaphoric costumes and simple yet swell stage visuals. Echoes of King Lear also add to the work, which UMO also performed last holiday season at Empty Space and subsequently toured.
There's an almost Japanese spareness in scenic/costume designer Regan Haines' stage: Thick, hanging textile ropes suggest a forest; a still, lurking actor in tights wearing a bald-looking, evil mask uncannily evokes a spider. Three actors belted together comprise a demon whose body hairs are thick as baseball bats, gold and squishy-looking. Needleheaded giants trounce onstage and actors flap black umbrellas to impersonate crows: These whimsical strokes of theatrical illusion are UMO's trademark; so is an ideological/aesthetic current that either tries to speak to childlike adults or to the innocent child inside us all (as opposed to the inner tot who's screaming with rage).
So Expressions of the Spirit is perfect for kids, but not, I don't think, for adults--at least not those who aren't in the mood for magic spells and princesses. Nevertheless, a versatile cast directed by Walter Baker easily slips in and out of their multiple roles, and the group of actors feel like extensions of a single-minded machine. Bhama Roget is fetching as a self-interested fox/old woman changeling, though I longed for some unpredictable stage business to enhance her parcel of gestures. It was hard to stop looking at Todd Licea as the doddering king and dopey boy-prince--his voice and timing are delicious. The end of the play is quite resonant as the loving daughter gives her father a cure for his ills: for it's impossible to keep our parents alive forever, as much as we may want to.
All that said, I still fail to enjoy the larger UMO aesthetic. The ensemble's previous productions have often worked without a formal narrative structure, making some audience members virtually implode with joy and leaving others cold--this troupe is known as one that people either love or hate. Expression of the Spirit's fairy-tale narrative may make the UMO experience more cohesive for some. But narrative or no, the ensemble deals with a specific set of parameters that invoke myth, Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the primal meaning of so-called universal symbols and values like darkness, light, moon, sun, forest, goodness, evil, etc. The play makes clear the metaphors of its forest motif, of the innocent girl getting waylaid by conniving demons... and that's all well and good--sort of. But embracing myth in UMO's wide-eyed way is pretty annoying for me, because (1) this aesthetic isn't all that challenging or interesting, and (2) to assume that myth speaks the so-called truths of life to everyone is incorrect. It's pretty phony to play up to the supposed doe-eyed inner child in all of us--isn't that stance a state of denial? What is innocence, anyway? This culture assumes children's innocence because it's easier than accepting that they know a lot; the Grimm Brothers' tales point to the fact that the dark side of life appeals to children. While UMO's work expresses some of that violence, it's airbrushed, favoring an awe-filled magical sensibility.
Art that's set up to evoke childlike wonder in adults is so limited and cheesy that I wonder why people fall for it. Is the sickness of nostalgia that pervasive? If you're an adult, you can't be a child again. You have to deal with difficult issues. Yes, it's a drag to grow up, but to relinquish the complexities of the adult world in favor of the childlike is maudlin and petulant. Think about this if you see Expressions of the Spirit. And leave your fairy dust at home under your pillow.