When most people think of theatre, they think of bright multi-colored lights, decadent costumes and elaborate stages that can be wheeled off stage with ease. At the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, Lula Del Ray shattered the perceptions of what theatre should and can be.
Created by the Manual Cinema production company in Chicago, Lula Del Ray is a coming-of-age story about Lula, a teen whose vivid imagination keeps her company in the vast, rolling desert of southwestern America. She lives with her mother, who spends her time taking down readings and calculations from space, in a lone trailer in the desert. Lula also dreams of faraway planets, but her ambitions change when through her crackly radio she hears the dulcet tones of the Baden Brothers. Inspired by Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and Patsy Cline, the Baden Brothers are a pair of cowboy-hat-donning crooners with a musical riff on the “Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please.” that opens up Lula’s world. Lula is determined to meet her crushes and runs away from home to go to the big city in order to meet them.
With the exception of the Baden Brothers singing and a few radio announcements, there is no dialogue. The entire story is told through visuals with sound mixing and score rolling underneath, which comes from a live band on the side of the stage. Using the overhead projectors to project carefully colored or cut-out figures onto a screen, Lula sometimes only moves by a hand moving a piece of film back and forth. Although you can never actually see the hand moving on the projector, the production allows you to see the puppeteers working. For more complex movements, there are two actors for Lula (Sarah Fornace) and her mother (Julia Miller) whose silhouettes occupy the big screen.
Despite seeing Oz pull the strings—rather, the transparent projector images—it doesn’t take away from Lula Del Ray’s charm. If anything, the viewer can appreciate the amount of work and thought that went into just making Lula swing her legs from the edge of the satellite. With one false movement from one of the puppeteer’s pointer fingers, the entire world can come apart—but it doesn’t.
By combining these mediums, Lula Del Ray is able to accomplish feats that theatre can’t. The audience is inserted into Lula’s dizziest daydreams, and the line between fantasy and reality is blurred. And like film, the puppeteers can create pans, zoom in and out, and change settings with ease. Directors of plays and musicals on Broadway can only guide the audience to look at the action with lighting and staging.
Although traditional theatre still is a magical art form, this combination of film and stage tells Lula’s story more effectively than a typical stage show would. This innovative show first premiered in 2012, but has been six-and-a-half years in the making. Much like the mechanics behind the show, Lula reminds us what we were like when we thought that the possibilities were endless and that “Think outside the box” might just be the best advice.
Conceived by: Julia Miller
Original text by: by Brendan Hill
Designers and directors: Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace and Julia Miller
Music: Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman with Maren Celest, Michael Hilger, and Jacob Winchester.
Through: January 13
Alicia Kort is Paste’s Theatre Editor.