By Stanford Friedman
In a world without Edward Albee, where do we turn to witness the effects of family angst and lost youth? To a puppet theater performance in the basement of Dixon Place, obviously. Not that Blossom, Spencer Lott’s tale of a man with dementia, and the women who love him, in any way resembles Albee’s oeuvre. This work is moody and sentimental, not dark and scathing. Still, there is a man burdened by his life’s work, an interfering outsider, and some inappropriate sex. And, while Albee was not beyond putting an actor in a lizard costume, Lott, with the exception of one major flaw, successfully goes one better by weaving puppets, people and pieces of canvas into a unique and transportive story.
James Blossom (a puppet, handled by Rowan Magee), at age 76, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and his daughter Kathryn (a human, Jamie Agnello) has little choice but to place him in Garden Ridge, an assisted living facility. We watch as he spends his final months literally flying in and out of reality, often finding himself, Walter Mitty-like, in dangerous situations on mountaintops, or at ocean’s bottom or while zooming through his mindscape on a motorcycle, a long ago lover at his side. The seeds of his confusion are the movies he once worked on as a scenic artist. He can no longer find the line between his old backdrops and his current armchair.
Mr. Blossom is a wonderfully sculpted puppet with bushy eyebrows, big ears and a forlorn expression, and Magee brings him to physical life nicely, employing the stilted and bewildered movements of an elder in decline. But unfortunately. Magee uses his own young man’s voice in delivering dialog, rarely even bothering to act the part. It’s a near calamitous distraction. At first, I thought this might be a directorial choice by Lott, albeit a bad one, since it makes a certain kind of sense for a character so lost in his past. But when we are introduced to two other puppet residents of the facility, Maisey, in her bunny slippers, and Ronald, they both are voiced as aged, making Magee’s efforts even more a disruption. Agnello, meanwhile, gives a lovely and fully formed performance as Blossom’s worried daughter, interacting with her felted co-star so believably that you at times forget she is playing opposite a character who comes up to about her knee.
The evening’s secondary story involves another human, Kelly (Chelsea Fryer), an art instructor employed by Garden Ridge to keep its patients engaged. Her burgeoning success makes for a perfectly logical plotline at first, given Blossom’s painterly history, and Fryer gives a vivid performance. But by play’s end her story threatens to take over the proceedings, providing a disjointed counterpoint to the otherwise melancholy goings-on.
The show is technically tight, with the puppets often rolling along atop the kind of utility carts one might find at a place like Garden Ridge, and Simon Harding’s set is a collection of blank, white canvases that sometimes turn into ramps. Not visually stunning, but a smart metaphor for the plight of our fading hero.
Blossom – Created and directed by Spencer Lott.
WITH: Robert M. Stevenson, Jamie Agnello, Rowan Magee, Chelsea Fryer and Sam Jay Gold.
Laura Been, Co-Producer; Leigh Walter, Assistant Director; Set Design by Simon Harding, Lighting Design by Alex Jainchill. Sound Design by Chris Gabriel, Dramaturg by Amy Jensen, Puppet Design by Spencer Lott. Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., 866-811-4111, dixonplace.org Through September 24. Running Time: 80 min.