The Scandal of Content: The Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Tontlawald’

From left, Madeline H.D. Brown, Rebecca Frank, Liz Wand, Cindy Im, and Marilet Martinez in "Tontlawald" (photo by Annie Paladino)

In devised theater, rather than starting with an already written script and finished production design as you would in traditional theater, the company creates text, music, movement, and design elements together as they go through the rehearsal process. Though there’s no devised aesthetic that defines it like a genre, devised work tends to be more physical, to make more use of every skill each actor possesses (singing, dancing, playing musical instruments). There’s also a strong preference for adapted material among companies that make devised work—maybe because this kind of experimental collaboration is easier if you at least know the outlines of the story you’re trying to tell.

The inspiration for Cutting Ball’s first devised work, Tontlawald, is an Estonian fairy tale in which a girl runs away from her abusive stepmother to live in the Tontlawald, the forbidden ghost-forest. The inhabitants of the Tontlawald fashion a doll out of clay to take the girl’s place, and inside the doll they place a black snake. The doll goes back to the village and endures the stepmother’s cruel treatment, while the girl lives happily in the Tontlawald. One day when the stepmother goes too far, the black snake darts out of the doll’s mouth and bites her tongue, killing her instantly. The girl grows up, and in the course of things must leave the Tontlawald. She turns into a bird and flies away.

This story seems like it belongs squarely in E.T.A. Hoffman territory, in a world cluttered with terrifying automatons and uncanny and dreadful signs from the basement of the human consciousness. Cutting Ball’s production, directed by Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino, is clean and lucid—sparse, even, but for the richness of the music and movement the company presents. The set comprises an enormous net hung from the ceiling on three sides, woven of some partly translucent parachute-like material, or something more organic. ectoplasm? Spider-silk? In some scenes, the set by production designer Silvie Deutsch suggests the border of the haunted forest, when the girl (called Lona in this production, and played by Marilet Martinez) strays up to it and peers through the gaps at two Tontlawaldians (Sam Gibbs and Wiley Naman Strasser) leaping over each other, barking and snarling in a joyful dog-man dance. The lighting by David Sinaiko is beautifully, meltingly simple. As Lona gives us the rundown of the story at the beginning of the play, a rectangular spot focused on her face makes her jaw pop out in a slice of light. When the theater is dim, the white spider-strands seem to float up from the black walls.

The a cappella score—a mixture of tonal Eastern European music and 1940s Americana performed with an even, alien blankness—is overwhelmingly gorgeous, the eight voices of the ensemble seeming to hum along the net, the space itself vibrating as if the whole theater were a voice box. Every player at some point tells some part of the story through movement, as well as through music and text. The movement, choreographed by Laura Arrington, is often spastic and arresting. In one moment father and stepmother perform a hand-dance where they seem to be quickly and desperately weaving their fingers together in a motion that resonates obscurely with the vaguely arachnid set.

The company is costumed simply, and nearly identically, in bright red (costumes also by Silvie Deutsch). Nearly every company member plays more than one role, the characters bleeding into one another and into the totality of the ensemble, but distinct personalities do emerge. Rebecca Frank as the fairy girl, Lona’s counterpart in the Tontlawald, consistently plays a kind of blank-eyed unconcern that might be innocent or cruel, depending on the context. Madeline H.D. Brown’s stepmother is wearily malevolent, glowering at the others as if she knows what’s coming and resents them, resents the very fabric of the story. She stalks around the stage in one red high-heeled boot, a choice that is both cryptic and somehow precisely stepmotherly: she’s off-kilter, an addition, the odd one out. As the fairies sing in sweet harmony—she tunelessly plucks a cello, glaring balefully from the background.

Tontlawald is a splendid piece of theater. The minimal text in the piece (about five pages for 70 minutes, according to Cutting Ball resident playwright Eugenie Chan) is an appealing mix of the decorous language from the original translation of the fairy tale (from The Violet Fairy Book by Andrew Lang) and playful “dialogue” crafted by Chan and the company. For all that it might seem simple, the work that went into the production is apparent in the flawlessness of the music, the effortless physicality of the performers, the unity of the ensemble. It is nearly perfect on an aesthetic level.

I suspect that the element that will most affect an audience’s experience of the play is how much they try to map the story of the fairy tale onto it, and how frustrated they may get if it doesn’t work out the way they think it will. Maybe someone is liberated enough that she doesn’t slavishly pursue narrative, doesn’t cling like one drowning to any scrap of structure or story—but not I. In a scene following the stepmother’s death, the fairy-girl takes the red boot and bats it around like a toy for minutes on end. Her expression as she plays with the boot is deeply disturbing—there’s something psychopathic, predatory, and intent in her expression, something totally devoid of compassion. Lona watches her from the edge of the white net, while around them, the father does a quiet, spasmodic dance, his body inching and stretching along the wall, jerking and scrunching and wheeling. This might be the moment when Lona realizes she can’t stay in the Tontlawald forever, that she is growing up while her companion is stuck forever in childhood. Or it might be a constellation of movements and sounds. The tension between the experience itself and the feeling you should be sucking more meaning out of it is one that some (myself included) will find delicious.

The Cutting Ball Theater’s Tontlawald runs through March 11 at the Exit, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco.

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