A provocative puppet show
Puppets used in the production of “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” conveyed a surprising degree of emotion.
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On Thursday, Nov. 10, the Theater and Dance Department unveiled its edgy, yet touching presentation of Paula Vogel’s “The Long Christmas Ride Home.” Directed by Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Todd Coulter and Sally Meehan ’12, “The Long Christmas Ride Home” is the provocative story of a family of five making their way to their grandparents’ house on one fateful Christmas. The events of this Christmas follow the three children into their futures as the play flashes forward and reveals that the dynamics of this dysfunctional family have lasting effects.
The production pushed the actors to express the powerful emotions behind the devastating situations the characters face. This challenge was even greater as, for the first half of the play, three of the main characters were played by puppets controlled by students, in a modern adaptation of “bunraku,” an ancient form of Japanese puppetry.
The Figures of Speech Theatre of Freeport, Maine, an ensemble of performers dedicated to exploring new approaches to theatre, including puppetry, designed the puppets used in the College’s performance. The play opened on a scene that is quintessentially American: the Christmas car ride to the grandparents’ house. Mom (Mary Randall ’13) and Dad (Charles Diamond ’12) sit in the front seat of the car as their three children bicker and fight in the back seat. Dad dreams of the woman with whom he is having an affair, while Mom fantasizes about having her own affair or getting pregnant again to catch her adulterous husband’s attention.
At this point in the production, Randall and Diamond narrated their own thoughts and those of the children while the puppeteers (Mimi Smith ’13, Alison Reader ’12, and Nicholas LaRovere ’15) provided the remarkably expressive movements of Claire, Rebecca and Stephen, respectively.
Though the children did not speak through their own voices at this point in the show, it was amazing how much emotion Smith, Reader and LaRovere were able to intimate through the slight movements of the puppets. Smith portrayed the oldest child Rebecca’s desire to gain the respect and attention of her parents through her still posture, in imitation of adulthood. The only boy in the family, Stephen, portrayed by LaRovere, is a quiet and kind soul. In keeping with the character’s personality, LaRovere moved the puppet gently; each turn of the head or shift in posture was carried out with thought. In contrast, Reader kept Claire in a flurry of activity. As the youngest child, Claire rarely is still, always tapping her feet or bobbing her head.
After the family arrives at the grandparents’ house, they open presents and share a Christmas drink. While there, Stephen breaks the expensive charm bracelet that Dad bought for his “golden girl,” Claire. In a bout of frustration and rage, Dad kicks Stephen. Grandpa (Trip Venturella ’12) jumps in to defend his grandson and the Christmas dinner ends in a brawl. As the family quickly drives away from the scene, Dad hits Mom in a moment that would follow the three children throughout their lives.
At this point in the play, each of the children begin to narrate their own story, breaking free from the control of their parents and the puppeteers. Flashing forward to their adulthood, Rebecca (Josie Tiedeman ’15), Claire (Julia Crouter ’13) and Stephen (Daniel Kirby ’14) each find themselves abandoned by their lovers.
The problems within their own relationships reflect the trauma of their childhood. Claire, once her father’s “golden girl,” prides herself on sleeping with attractive women. However, she is unable to maintain any meaningful relationships. Meanwhile, Rebecca’s constant need for attention causes her to habitually cheat on her boyfriend. Stephen, rejected and abused by his own father, engages in meaningful relationships with other men. Once abandoned by his boyfriend, Stephen desperately searches for love and ends up contracting AIDs from a stranger at a club. The virus eventually kills him, though he returns to the earth each year at Christmas as a ghost to visit his sisters.
Although the scenes with Stephen’s ghost were fairly clichéd, Kirby’s brilliant performance brought life to what could easily have been a dull script.
Though a strong performance on the whole, the power of the play came from the little details. As adults, the children often repeat exactly what their parents said to them years earlier on that fateful Christmas without even realizing it. In addition, the continually shifting narrative juxtaposes both the powerful animosity and strong love that can exist simultaneously with deep love within a family.
Overall, the Theater and Dance Department produced an amazing show. A touching tale of the love and bitterness that can tear a family apart, “The Long Christmas Ride Home” is certainly not a typical Christmas story. It is, however, a story that makes one appreciate the influence of family and the value of each breath taken together.