Puppets in Review- Doubting Dorothy

Gretchen Van Lente- Doubting Dorothy

The Atrium Theater, New York, NY
April 28, 1999

review by Donald Devet

Maybe “Doubting Dorothy” is a modern day metaphor for a student’s journey through the quagmire of academia.

I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more when Dorothy put on her checkered gray dress and introduced herself as “boring.” This is definitely a different version of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” For one thing there are no scarecrow, tin man or lion. There isn’t even a good witch or Toto. Instead we have Susan B. Anthony, and a mechanical bird (Icarus) plus a large cast of chatty characters.

Gretchen Van Lente has credited a number of sources of inspiration for her thesis production culminating five years of school at New School University. Everything from “Star Wars” to “Swimming to Cambodia” with plenty of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Cervantes thrown in for good measure has found its way into the text. The references come and go in a flurry of vignettes. Along the way we are treated to a variety of puppetry styles– shadow, Bunraku, rod, finger, hand, object– that keep the busy puppeteers constantly moving minimalist sets and props on and off.

The moments of humor are few and far between. When they do come– Icarus perched on Christ’s head– they work amazingly well. More humor would have helped the digestion of some of the more arcane allusions.

The story’s core lesson has been preserved– what you are seeking is in your own back yard, even if it is only in shades of gray. But all the other little plot points of the Oz odyssey seemed to have been ditched in favor of something closer to Gretchen’s heart.
Dorothy is trying to get to the “University.” She is both helped and hindered along the way. She is also literally shadowed by a mysterious character called “Puck.” Maybe “Doubting Dorothy” is a modern day metaphor for a student’s journey through the quagmire of academia. Or maybe it’s just a way of show casing all the techniques Gretchen has picked up these last five years. Whatever it is supposed to be, it isn’t “boring.”

Utilizing a story frame that is familiar as McDonald’s hamburgers is tricky business. The plot itself holds few surprises. Yet by cleverly interweaving text from epic poems, pop films and philosophy, Gretchen keeps the audience slightly off guard. I look forward to seeing more of her work beyond the confines of Kansas and Oz.

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