The COVID-19 situation has certainly changed the way we go to the theater lately, but there are clever methods to remedy the situation. One such production, available online through May 1, is the Z Puppets Rosenschnoz production of Through the Narrows. Conceived as a “creative social distance event,” this production is presented in the style of a radio play, with occasional visual images and musical interludes, the performance is designed to be interactive. It encourages audiences to sing along as we are drawn into this intricate storytelling work.
At the very beginning, audiences are encouraged to participate in a handwashing ceremony. This sets the stage for what’s to come afterwards.
Set in modern-day Grant Park, Ellisheba is a 3500 year-old Jewish woman who uses a red walker to get around. Using her beloved story rock, she tells us that there are stories that aren’t in books or movies. These stories can get us through life’s difficult passages (called Mitzrayim).
The first story she tells is a flashback to ancient Egypt, although the telling has a modern spin. In Egypt, we meet Nahshon, a man who is a child inside. Chosen by Moses to lead one of the tribes of Israel, his story has largely been forgotten. Slavery, the plagues, and the eventual cross through the narrows of the parted Red Sea are all parts of Ellisheba’s chronicle. She comments that Moses gets the credit. This falsehood has often been repeated in history.
Ellisheba returns to modern times and, at first, she chases away a little Cherokee boy who seems to be in her way. The boy is Chuch, who’s celebrating his 7th birthday with his family. Told to fetch water, he talks about Granny Ward, who could chew bullets to make them sharper. After her husband, Kingfisher is killed in battle, Granny Ward takes over. She becomes so important to the tribe that she’s known as Giguyu, Beloved Woman.
Now it’s Chuch’s turn to tell a story. He’s lead through the narrows by the little people, “who come when we’re in danger.” After playing for a while, he returns home just in time to witness his town being burned and pillaged during the Cherokee Removal act of the 1830s, which provided the legal “justification” for the Trail of Tears. When he finds Ellie, they both realize how much they have in common, and sing together.
Performed by Shari Aronson as Ellisheba and Chris Griffith (tribal member, Cherokee Nation) as Chuch, with music by Greg Herriges, Through the Narrows is a remarkable production. Director Laurie Witzkowski’s revision as a radio play, provides the vivid images that run through your head as you listen, drawing us deep into these historically accurate tales.
Through the Narrows was first performed live last year, and because this version is online, it’s a different experience altogether. While we hear voices and music, no actors are seen moving the puppets. Instead, we’re given visual moments from the stage production and occasional photographs showing the puppets interacting with the set and props. Among these are a series of small tables holding slices of Chuch’s birthday cake on them, as well as several of Ellisheba trying to move using her red walker. Often the screen is dark, except for subtitles and pronunciation keys that help us learn some of the important terms of these tales.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen something like this, but I encourage this and other theaters to consider other stories like this! Z Puppets Rosenchnoz encourages audiences to submit, via email ([email protected]) questions and comments about the history and ideas related to the play.