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Unbinding Isaac

Redmoon Theater

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

By Kelly Kleiman

It must be tough for Redmoon Theater. Here's a company doing astonishing work, challenging both theatrically and intellectually, and yet when most people hear about Redmoon for the first time they laugh and look to see what else is playing. The puppet Moby-Dick, right. Yet that show turned out to be one of the most remarkable evenings I've ever spent in the theater.

Redmoon's new piece, Unbinding Isaac, demonstrates just how essential puppets are to the company's storytelling, as did the largely puppet-free The Ballad of Frankie and Johnny in 1997, perhaps the only bad production they've ever done. Redmoon's range of puppet styles--from hand and stick puppets to marionettes to shadow puppets to huge beings operated by several actors--has never been merely clever. Instead different styles articulate the characters' varied thoughts and goals: at the simplest level, things loom or shrink, move or disappear, depending on whether they're important or trivial. But without puppets, Redmoon's combination of narration, music, and visual and sound effects becomes hopelessly static. Without puppets to manipulate, the actors look aimless--they're just a bunch of people waving their bodies, as though someone had decided to try sign language while making a fist.

This piece is an adaptation of the biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac. The tale is told through Brechtian signs at the top of the stage ("He is called to sacrifice / He saddles the ass / He sharpens the knife / He begins anew") and by a blind woman with a megaphone at the side of the stage who recites both the story and her commentary on it. What a shame writer-director Jim Lasko makes the woman (Alison Halstead) as annoying as the zealots on State Street on whom she's based: her preacherly cadences turn the text into hectoring and then background noise, obscuring its point. (I'm also uncomfortable that God is portrayed as a tiny, blind black woman. There's no reason She couldn't be, but white artists should be careful about using nonwhites as icons, and able artists should investigate the meanings they attach to disability. We ought to have come some distance from the days when "God is a Puerto Rican steam-bath attendant" was a laugh line.)

While the tale of Abraham is told, the contemporary daily life of Isaac (Jim Slonina) is shown. He lives in a room whose view is the familiar surrealist painted blue sky with clouds; when he goes out, he's surrounded by people dressed in Magritte's classic black suit and bowler. Isaac's life is indeed surreal and without meaning. His tiny room is occupied by an enormous bed, under whose covers every one of his possessions is stored: suit, bowler, teakettle, even toast, each in its own cubby and identified in the same careful handwriting Magritte used to announce "Ce n'est pas une pipe." The silent Isaac's unvarying ritual--dressing, taking the bus to work, going to the pub, and coming home--is presented cleverly, if somewhat too lengthily. His identical colleagues (Ann Boyd, Julie Hopkins, and Amy Jarvis) and lockstep workday owe more than a small debt to Elmer Rice's 1923 The Adding Machine, the father of all adult puppet shows and a savage critique of capitalism. But the cleverest comic moment here is a Redmoon original, as shadow puppets show us Isaac ordering a hamburger, no fries.

Then one day Isaac and the Magritte figures get their raincoats mixed up, and suddenly Isaac's is gone, taken by the blind woman. That one little change changes everything: without the raincoat in its cubby, he can't sleep right. He loses the green apple he always carries to work (another Magritte reference) and discovers it in the hands of the blind woman. Torn from his routine, Isaac finds himself searching for meaning and faith.

This is a lovely and important subject, and Lasko's script brings out all of its complexity. It can be terrifying to have faith and comforting and clear not to, to experience everything on the surface; it can be a challenge to maintain faith in a god who demands sacrifice of the things most precious to you as you experience "the reflexive clutching and labored release," as one character puts it, that make up life. Isaac is everyman, making his own sacrifice as Abraham did before him and attempting to climb a ladder that drops from heaven, just as his son Jacob will do. Lasko gives Isaac only one spoken line--"Can I help you?"--suggesting that isolation is the great barrier to faith, and connection its royal road.

Serious topics seriously considered--exactly what one would expect from the folks whose Moby-Dick managed to distill from that great masterwork one essential sentence about the whale: "Its whiteness made the palsied world seem like a leper." A company able to present the ludicrous horror of chasing evil, as if it wouldn't come to us, is more than capable of presenting the pain and joy of chasing belief.

But Moby-Dick communicated this intellection through theatrical means. When a huge shadow whale finally turned on Ahab, Redmoon was guiding audiences through the primary text of modernity: God is absent or malign, people are vengeful or adrift or confused--and yet we go on. In Unbinding Isaac the same messages appear, but without the mediation of the puppets they come to seem the aimless ramblings of a street preacher.

The three Magrittes are terrifically graceful, but the endless scenes in which they're blown about by the wind while Isaac flies a kite only serve to emphasize that their grace is more interesting when employed in manipulating life-size puppets than on its own. We want something more than seeing that they know how to sway together like mimes fighting an imaginary wind: we want forward momentum. We want narrative.

The design is spectacular, from Isaac's hold-all bed to a human-powered school bus to the clocks and lights and ladders falling from the sky. Credit goes to puppet and prop designer Shoshanna Utchenik as well as to set designer Stephanie Nelson. Composer-sound designer Seth Greene does extraordinary things from the first moment, when one Magritte figure perches in an upper corner of the stage, opening and closing boxes full of sound: a rainstorm, a crying baby, a Ping-Pong game. This image of the plenitude of life sustains the show for quite some time, until it becomes clear that Unbinding Isaac is about nothing but its design. With puppets--production design in motion--Redmoon can get away with this; without them it can't.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Flak.

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