The director Robert LePage likes to imagine that theater began as such: “Man was sitting around a bonfire in a cave telling stories, and one day he stood up and used his shadow to illustrate his tale.” That’s the starting point of Nightingale and Other Short Fables, his production of several brief Stravinsky works about animals, at BAM through Sunday. Known best in this town for his high-tech Ring cycle, still to be completed at the Metropolitan Opera (and at BAM for 2009’s nine-hour marathon Lipsynch), he produces here something far simpler: using BAM’s limitations to his advantage—this ain’t the Met, after all—he traces the evolution of theater, at least this one possible progression (which probably took place in the East) from primitive hand-shadows through to the sophisticated manipulation of marionettes.
During the quick vocal works Pribaoutki, Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont and Berceuses du chat, four actors created stunning hand-shadows on a long, thin screen above the stage: their depictions of napping cats, for example, impossibly passed between shadow people, were as vivid and seamless as a simple animated film. For The Fox, a short operatic work, the puppetry progressed from hand shadows to those cast by full bodies: acrobatic, lightly costumed actors simulated the action of the story, about of a fox who tries to eat a rooster but is repeatedly thwarted by other farm animals until they kill him, by rolling around behind a long white screen, sometimes locking bodies to create the appearance of a four-legged fox or a cock pecking at grain on the ground. (These works were punctuated by unstaged musical interludes: the women’s chorus of the Canadian Opera Company, which co-produced the show, sang Four Russian Peasant Songs, and a clarinetist in Central Asian garb squawked through Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet.)
Finally, for The Nightingale, based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, LePage graduated to physical puppets, manipulated by singers wading through an orchestra pit filled up with water. (While charting the history of Eastern theater, LePage was also subtly tracing the evolution of Western music, via Stravinsky, opening with crude folk songs and ending with enchanted, heavily Debussy-inspired and more sophisticated-sounding orchestral music.) A king-swallowing, bed-sized skeleton meant to be Death was the petrifying highlight, though my attention often drifted to the wings, where undulating reflections of light off the bathtub pit danced across the walls, something I don’t think I’d ever seen in a theater. (Maybe the circus?) Ostensibly simple but impossibly complex, these increasingly intricate plays, from shadow- to figurine-, put to shame the underwhelming semi-staging—the “live animations”—of the New York Philharmonic’s over-celebrated production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre last season, proving that limited resources can be stretched to amazing places when in the hands of a brilliant cast and director.
Full disclosure: Harry Westen contributes to BAM’s programs.