News Column

'D-Generation' at Touchstone finds art in aging

November 14, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 14--Finding joy in something as serious as late-stage dementia is the goal of "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," on stage Thursday through Sunday at Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem.

In the Sandglass Theater production, puppets representing nursing home residents with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia create a story that taps their imagination to connect with the outside world.

Eric Bass, one of three puppeteers and actors who present the show, was approached in 2008 by Timeslips, an organization that facilitates creative storytelling to improve the quality of life for people with memory loss, to create a theater piece about the program.

Timeslips gathers people with dementia, and a facilitator shows them images and asks them to suggest what they think may be happening in the picture. The thoughts are tied together in an illuminating and whimsical narrative.

"People with dementia lose their memory and start to feel that everything they do meets with defeat," Bass says. "With Timeslips, the creative part of the brain is engaged and there are no wrong answers. Everything they say is affirmed."

Bass and colleagues Ines Zeller Bass and Kirk Murphy went through the Timeslips training and spent five months in nursing homes working with residents and collecting stories.

He says they saw that residents who went through the process would laugh more, and their mood would brighten.

The show, which is funded through a National Theater Project grant, includes a re-enactment of two of those stories as well as the three actors' reflections on disease and the Timeslips' process.

"Through this process, these people find ways to live in the moment," Bass says. "The stories are wildly free-associative. Sometimes they are quite funny, sometimes poignant. There is a wonderful absurdity to them."

The residents are portrayed by five realistic puppets, that are 30 percent life size and were made by sculptor Connie Richard. They sit in wheelchairs crafted from crutches and baby carriages.

"Everything is metaphorical," Bass says. "The puppets allow us to look at different things with distance. Puppets always remind us that they are not real, however the emotions are real. Puppets allow the humor to come out, but don't make fun of them."

As part of the hourlong show, the three actors also perform another puppet show of the created story for the residents, using two-dimensional cut-out paper style puppets.

"It's a very funny part of the show and it really brings out the humor of the stories," Bass says.

The show also includes three animated video segments by Michel Moyse that suggest what might be happening in the minds of characters.

Bass says Moyse, along with Paul Dedell who wrote the original score and Sabrina Hamilton who does the lighting, all have parents who suffered from dementia and bring personal elements to their work.

"It's about acceptance," Bass says. "Dementia is a serious disease that we can't take lightly, but we want to create theater that is positive."

-- "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem. Tickets: $25; $15, students and senior; pay what you will, Thursday. http://www.touchstone.org, 610-867-1689.

'The Pillowman' at Lehigh

The new production by Lehigh University's Department of Theatre is "about the blackest comedy you'll ever come across," says director Augustine Ripa.

"The Pillowman" is a Tony-winning play by celebrated Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, but unlike most of his other plays, does not take place in Ireland.

It tells the tale of Katurian, a writer living in a totalitarian dictatorship in Eastern Europe. He is being questioned in a prison by two police officers about his stories' similarities to a number of strange child murders. Katurian is played by Lorentz Aberg,

"This play is a favorite of mine," says Ripa, who previously directed McDonagh's "Cripple of Inishmaan." "I love the themes he deals with. The focus is the incredible power of storytelling, and how it can transcend even horrific life experiences."

The play includes actors re-creating some of Katurian's stories, one of which is "The Pillowman."

Ripa says McDonagh was influenced by traditional fairy tales, which he notes are frequently "cautionary tales with threats against the most innocent."

The two police officers, played by Tori Bonsall and Meghan Harris, keep pressuring Katurian, although he knows nothing about the murders. Soon it seems that Katurian's mentally impaired brother Michal, played by Alec Lorraine, may have something to do with the murder and Katurian is ready to take the rap to save his stories from being burned.

The play includes both narrations and re-enactments of Katurian's stories, including one which tells how Katurian developed his twisted imagination by hearing the sounds of his brother being tortured by their parents. Another story, "Little Jesus," also deal with themes of torture against children.

"The metaphor is that parents can do awful things," Ripa says.

The story of the Pillowman is about a 9-foot-tall entity who, when someone is about to commit suicide, takes them back to their childhood and gives the chance to avoid the pain of their life by ending it as a child. It, too, ends with a painful twist.

Will Lowry has crafted a set that is very dungeon-like with multiple levels, Ripa says.

With its grim themes, Ripa says "The Pillowman" will shock, but it will also leave the audience with a positive feeling.

"At the end of the day, it's not quite so dark," Ripa says. "It's a fascinating play. If it's done well, audiences will laugh and feel a little embarrassed that they laughed."

-- "The Pillowman," 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Nov. 20-22; 2 p.m. Sunday, Diamond Theater, Zoellner Arts Center, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem. Tickets: $12; $5, students. 610-758-2787, http://www.zoellnerartscenter.org.

'Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland'

Every other year, Pines Dinner Theatre does a musical revue for Christmas, and this year director Oliver Blatt was inspired by classic television Christmas variety specials hosted by celebrities such as Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. He envisioned a homey environment filled with good cheer and classic Christmas songs.

"We wanted our audience to feel like they are watching a version of one of those shows," Blatt says.

Cast members Christopher David Roche, Amber Kerestes, Gwen Vigorito, Stacey B. Yoder and Brian Michael Vigorito become the hosts for The Pines' "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland." The show features more than 30 beloved holiday tunes.

"The concept is that everyone in the cast is sharing their favorite Christmas memories with the audience, from decorating the Christmas tree to staying up late and waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney," Blatt says.

Joining the cast on stage is a three-piece, "jazz-inspired" ensemble for songs from "Silent Night" to "Jingle Bells." Also included are a couple of original songs that Blatt says he hopes will become new classics.

The cast also will tell the story of the first Christmas. And what holiday show would be complete without a visit from Santa Claus? He shows up to visit everyone in the audience at his or her table.

Even the menu is inspired by the season, with sliced turkey and ham as the choice of entrees.

-- "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland," 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, through Dec. 29, Pines Dinner Theatre, 448 N. 17th St., Allentown. Tickets: Dinner and show: $48.50; $46.50, seniors; $20, ages 2-16; show: $25; $10, children. Dinner served one and a half hours before the show. 610-433-2333, http://www.pinesdinnertheatre.com.

Kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

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