La MaMa, NY, NY- 2021 Puppet Festival Series
review by Stefano Bancato
“Dreaming” is a living comic strip in which 2-D comic characters live among humans.
Originally published in The Puppetry Journal (Fall 2021 Vol. 72 No. 4)
Dreaming is an intricate and masterful puppet production. From the opening moments, I felt in the hands of master storytellers. Torry Bend, who is also the puppet, set, and costume designer, led a skilled and professional team of designers. Though small in scale, the breadth of the production is enormous, which was at times deeply inspiring and at other times felt overwhelming.
The original story by Howard Craft is adapted and directed by Torry Bend and JaMeeka Holloway. Dreaming is a living comic strip in which 2-D comic characters live among humans. It is a story about two men, who, in different ways, are deeply affected by Winsor McCay’s 1905 comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.
In homage to his father, Bob McCay, Winsor’s son, endeavors to resurrect his father’s comic strip to its former glory. His ignorance and privilege protects him from seeing that his father’s portrayal of Black and Chinese characters are offensively racist and his depictions of women are demeaning and chauvinistic.
Even when these issues are presented to Bob, he forges ahead, defending his father and legacy. In direct contrast to Bob is Malachi Washington, a Black man who was once a 2-D character from the comic and is now a 3-D human.
Malachi is a master portrait painter, and when he paints comic characters, they transform into the 3-D version of themselves. It is problematic that this pivotal plot point is buried three quarters of the way through the story, causing much confusion for most of the show. Even so, the metaphors layered throughout the script and woven into the physical storytelling are artfully profound.
Rod puppets, masked figures, 2-D puppets, and shadows were skillfully used to create a world teeming with pageantry and metaphor. Bend’s unique vision and design were unparalleled, though at times the show felt weighed down by too many ideas, both visually and thematically.
Lead puppeteer Ashley Winkfield did a superb job leading the ensemble and narrating parts of the show with grounded confidence. Dedicated puppeteers animated the world with haunting efficiency. Transitions were less successful. Puppeteers were sometimes hampered by their myriad responsibilities, moving set pieces, props, and puppets in and out in a haphazard way.
Bend might consider simplifying some of her vision. The show might benefit from a trusted, dramaturgical eye, helping with edits and pacing.
The cast of voice actors was wonderful, and when partnered with expert puppeteering, characters sprang to life. The sound design created a deep and rich atmosphere, though at times, sound levels were a bit too high, occasionally overpowering the voiceovers.
Dreaming is a beautiful, poignant, and important piece of theater. With some adjustments to the harmonic flow between puppeteers and stage pictures, this show could have a long run and tour extensively. I left this show inspired and awestruck.