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Myth and Magic

by Ralph Hammann on July 18, 2013

By Robert Bagg from a story by Ralph Lee and Casey Compton, directed and designed by Ralph Lee, Mettawee River Theatre Company, various locations, through Aug. 9


If you’ve yet to experience the delight that is to be found at the peripatetic Mettawee River Theatre Company, check the schedule on their website (mettawee.org) and find the next outdoor performance of their new work, Taliesin.

Mettawee, located in Greenwich Village during the rest of the year, summers in Salem, N.Y., and is committed to bringing its unique fare to rural communities in upstate New York and New England where there may be little access to professional theater. Each year artistic director Ralph Lee creates a new work that draws its inspiration from the myths and legends of diverse cultures. He then spins that source material into a production that features puppets (both gigantic and diminutive), masks, dance, live music and a small company of shape-shifting actors.


The current offering is based on the medieval Welsh legend of Taliesin, who began his life as an unsuspecting servant to a sorceress seeking to transform her malformed son by means of a magic potion. While stirring the potion, the servant, not the son, reaps the benefits, only to be ingested by the sorceress and reborn as the titular character who will later become a poet endowed with the power of inspiration, the ability to see beyond everyday reality and various other magical abilities that eventually land him in the court of a king, queen and bard whose vanities have suffered insult from Taliesin’s vain foster father. A lot happens.

It is a tribute to our own excellent poet and playwright, Robert Bagg, that he has boiled down the elements of a complex tale into a lean and graceful text that never loses or confuses the audience of young and old. Moreover, Bagg has written parts of the play in witty verse and song that imbue it with good-natured humor—and with just enough hints of bawdiness to tickle adults while children are otherwise engaged with the fanciful production values. That the play sets forth its moral without preaching is further credit to Bagg, who knows that true poets are inspired by heroic deeds and not gold.

Aided by Casey Compton’s striking costumes, Lee has designed and fabricated an impressive array of creatures and beings. Some are simply rendered skeletal structures that invite imagination for their completion; others are beguiling; some inspire awe; and all are perfectly manipulated by the acting company of six as they move fluidly to Neal Kirkland’s music played by Ed RosenBerg III on the hammered dulcimer. As befits a production that celebrates transformation and creativity, Lee’s skill lies in working with the simplest of means to evoke the most distinctive of images in his puppets and masks. Taliesin is a small puppet with the permanent face of a trickster, but through Lee’s ingenuity and the actors’ supple movements, Taliesin appears to change his expressions and even wink at us as he flies through his intrigues. A majestic king and queen are wonderfully conceived in the stiff folds of their robes, which surprisingly come to life and economically reveal their own rigid natures. A giant sorceress commands our attention with her very size, but also bemuses with the apparent deftness of her fingers.

Most enchanting, however, is Una Osato’s performance in Lee’s best mask, a heartbreaking evocation of a homely crow-child. My only criticism of the production is that this most magical child vanishes early on, yet his image haunts to the end and thereafter.

It’s all performed under 11 simple lights and with minimal scenery, but it fills the mind so much more than the excess on movie screens and in theaters endowed with hundreds of lights but not as much imagination.