By Kendra Jones

“The three little pigs isn’t about architecture, you know.”

Three Houses, written by Dave Malloy and directed and choreographed by Annie Tippe, gives us the grown-up-version of the classic tale: those piggies’ fears, weaknesses, their anxieties, allowing the wolf (Scott Stangland) to consume them; finding the will to keep that wolf out; to look forward toward the version into which they’ll evolve.

The stage is intricately detailed. The set immediately creates high expectations. A dimly lit bar, a standing mic, vintage décor rolling into a sunken living room. The theater has been transformed, and we are part of this space: members of this crowd for the post-pandemic open mic that is about to begin. Taxidermy is mounted on the walls behind the bar: a deer head, various birds, ducks. Hunting lodge décor covers the walls leading down the hallways of what will represent grandparents’ houses. A German cuckoo clock, a golden telescope, a crocheted antimacassar, piles upon piles of books around the living room’s perimeter.

Musicians sit on mid-century chairs, from where they’ll perform instrumentals for original songs: pandemic narrations of grief, loneliness, inner turmoil, and discovery sang by three individuals. They go deep; they let it all out.

Susan (Margo Seibert), Sadie (Mia Pak), and Beckett (J.D. Mollison) have all recently separated from their significant others. It’s the pandemic. They’ve fled. They’re each alone in different parts of the world. Their grandparents die. The ghosts of these ancestors visit, they haunt them, they spur memories.

Beautifully detailed lyrics of reminiscence depicting Susan, Sadie, and Beckett’s memories and joy of childhoods spent with their grandparents (Henry Stram and Ching Valdes-Aran) transport us “Over the river and through the woods…”  This is a performance I loved every bit of in the moment, and just as much afterwards.

Photo by Marc J. Franklin

I expect more items from the stage, the walls, to be utilized, but they’re not. In fact, I stop noticing the intricate décor, once we leave Susan’s story. I forget about the mounted deer head and ducks.

Susan’s journey captures her depression while she busies herself with cleaning out her grandmother’s house in Latvia. Henry Stram and Ching Valdes-Aran embody the ancestors of whom she sings. She finds a dragon trinket she used to admire; out comes a life-size puppet, Pookie, voiced by Sadie. Susan becomes obsessed with organizing her grandmother’s library, and Pookie only encourages this distraction. She unearths the truth of her grandparent’s relationship as she discovers her own: maybe she is the wolf in her own story.

Sadie moves to the dessert with an obsession for video games; since childhood it’s been a comfort and a place of escape. It’s always been her wolf. But now it’s become an escape from reality: 14 hours a day spent living through cartoons. She spends the pandemic recreating a virtual version of her grandmother’s house, a virtual carnival where she recalls memories. She captures all of the tiny details, objects for which she scours photographs.

Photo by Marc J. Franklin

Beckett moves to a Brooklyn basement apartment. He orders Amazon packages, and the boxes pile up; he builds a structure of empty boxes to stow away in.  All the while, he allows himself to be consumed by seclusion. Beckett befriends a spider, a giant puppet voiced by Susan. Like the other puppets, Shelob the spider schemes against Beckett.

The big bad wolf is the vice that carries us from one day to another. He’s the addiction that stops us from feeling too much, the distraction that consumes us. The wolf is a glass jug of wine, video games, packages conveniently delivered to our doors. Anything that removes us from society, traps us in ourselves.

Photo by Marc J. Franklin

The use of memory association in this production is effective, fabulous, and poetic. The song lyrics make us shake with laughter, remind us of our own wolves, encourage us to reflect on our own joyous memories with our families, dwellings of childhood happiness. Repetition is hilariously depicted through the musical numbers but so painful when listening beyond the electronic blending of voices and ballad-like narrations.

The wolf gets in, the wolf always gets in; we always knew he would.

Written by Dave Malloy; Directed and choreographed by Annie Tippe.

WITH: J.D. Mollison (Beckett), Mia Pak (Sadie), Margo Seibert (Susan), Scott Stangland (Wolf), Henry Stram (Grandfather), Ching Valdes-Aran (Grandmother).

Creative Team: Or Matias (Music Direction & Music Supervision), dots (Scenic Design), Haydee Zelideth (Costume Design), Christopher Bowser (Lighting Design), Nick Kourtides (Sound Design), and James Ortiz (Puppet Design and Direction).

Three Houses, a world premiere production from Signature Premiere Resident Dave Malloy, will run until June 9, 2024 at  Signature Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY. Tickets can be purchased here.

The runtime is approximately 100 minutes with no intermission.