Figures of Speech Theatre’s Anerca

Christopher White wrote this review.

Figures of Speech Theatre (FST) is, first and foremost, a puppet theater. For most of us that designation creates an immediate impression far removed from the incredibly complex theatrical artistry of this world-renowned group. In the western world, puppets are typically thought of in terms of children and toys. I’m old enough that my first encounters with puppetry were watching Lambchop, Howdy Doody, Kukla & Ollie, et al, on television. Were I from England I’d probably add Punch & Judy. The best-known puppets today are those created by Jim Henson (and, since his death, the company he founded) for Sesame Street and the various Muppet projects. It should be noted that The Jim Henson Foundation, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, helped support the production of Anerca.

Anerca is difficult to summarize. Two puppets depict a young Inuit man being initiated into the spiritual life by an elderly shaman woman. These puppets are made in a variation of the Japanese Bunraku style. John and Carol Farrell, the founders of Figures of Speech Theatre, operate the nearly two-thirds life-sized figures in full view of the audience. John carved their heads and hands from basswood. They have articulated structures that make them appear to move independently, despite our being able to see their puppeteers. Carol exquisitely costumed them in fur clothing. It is difficult to convey how convincing these puppets are. Their faces seem to express a wide range of emotions, despite our knowing they are sculptural carvings incapable of change. This pair’s story is the heart of Anerca.

The shaman and the boy speak entirely in an invented language. During the discussion the Farrells spoke about why they didn’t want to write dialogue, then translate it into Inuit. Among the complex issues they set out to explore with Anerca were cross-cultural interactions, the misunderstandings of language, and direct emotional communication. Rather than putting Western words into another language, they focused on the emotional tone, physical world and spiritual quest of the characters.

The story of the shaman and boy is interwoven with scenes featuring the historical figure of Knud Rasmussen, a complex and conflicted explorer of Danish/Inuit heritage, and the fictive Beulah Borealis, an Arctic barmaid. The Farrells perform these roles directly. Carol also appears as a Stockholm high society woman and as a polar bear spirit, in flowing white robes and an intricate headdress with a mask that opens to reveal another mask beneath. Most of the dialogue is adapted from Rasmussen’s writings about his experiences among the Inuit. The most obvious socio-political commentary in Anerca occurs when Rasmussen speaks about how he convinced a village to trade their sacred protective amulets for trade goods like thimbles and locks of his hair. Yet, in another scene we see him at a gathering, chanting and beating a frame drum, lost in an ecstatic trance.

A series of projected images appear in a circular format on the dark scrim at the rear of the stage. These include everything from slides documenting one of Rasmussen’s expeditions to abstract depictions of the spirit world. The range of imagery, light sources and “special effects” employed is astounding. The visuals function in a wide variety of ways. At times they are ‘merely’ an innovative addition to the lighting design. Some interludes serve a practical purpose, such as allowing time for costume changes. It is, however, precisely these moments that always offer independent compelling experiences. These add more strands to the total theatrical experience Anerca is weaving.

Anerca was created twenty years ago and will be retired from the FST repertoire after this final production at the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center in Portland. FST made their decision not because they felt they’d outgrown the piece, nor because it had become dated, but in acknowledgement of the difficulties associated with mounting such a unique show. Many of their other productions can be produced with less technical support in a wider variety of venues without sacrificing aesthetic quality. Anerca is designed for a proscenium stage with a moderately complex set and needs a small, well-rehearsed, tech crew in addition to the two actor/puppeteers. Because it doesn’t clearly fit a regular niche, theaters are currently less willing to commit the resources needed to effectively mount the show. Painful as the decision was, Figures of Speech Theatre decided to produce Anerca one last time, offering a proper farewell to one of their signature creations. After each performance John and Carol discuss the work and their decision with the audience.

The program notes (which were most helpful documenting the offstage contributions to the production) provide an excellent overview of FST:

“John and Carol Farrell founded Figures of Speech Theatre to explore the interplay of actors, puppets, masks and movement. Believing that audiences experience art most vitally when they are called upon to engage their imaginations fully, the company produces visual theater that emphasizes myth and transformation. Figures of Speech Theatre is devoted to exploring personal, social and spiritual issues with work that quietly but emphatically illuminates our relationship to the earth and to each other, and the inherent value of all cultures.

A touring company since 1982, Figures of Speech has performed for audiences from Caribou, Maine to Lima, Peru to Tokyo, Japan. FST is a four time winner of the coveted “UNIMA Citation for Excellence,” the highest award in North American puppet theater: in 1986 for Anerca, in 1989 for Cupid and Psyche, in 1997 for Nightingale, and in 2000 for The Beanstalk Variations.”

Anerca, with its blend of puppetry, acting, sound, music, lights, motion and more, creates a whole far greater than the sum of its many fine parts. Given the structural and technical complexity of the show, it is reasonable to offer accolades to everyone involved. In particular, Michael Rafkin, a stalwart in Portland’s theater community, directed the show. Over the years that he has worked with FST, Michael always elicits the best from everyone in his productions. Alex Endy manipulates the light-show, shadow puppet and projected images live. The lighting was designed and run by Stoney Cook who designs primarily for dance productions including works of George Balanchine and Paul Taylor at Lincoln Center. Original music for Anerca was created by Tony Vacca, a widely respected percussionist. His score for Anerca, though composed 20 years ago, still is compelling, evocative, and so completely integrated within Anerca that it remains fresh

Ably assisted by a splendid team of designers and theater technicians, FST co-founders John and Carol Farrell gave their audience the priceless gift of a unique, compelling, theatrical experience. It is deeply moving, disturbing, painful, funny, honest, and dreamlike; impossible to reduce to mere words. All I can do is thank the Farrells and offer a quote from Eskimo Realities by Edmund Carpenter that was included in the program notes:

“In Eskimo, the word ‘to make poetry’ is the word ‘to breathe;’ both are derivatives of the word anerca – the soul, that which is eternal, the breath of life.”

(St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center, Portland, Maine, USA, October 27, 2005)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

More Posts