In the poem The Black Art, Anne Sexton describes writing poetry as taking used furniture and trying to make a tree. There's something like that at work in Cry You One, a unique theatrical experience that ArtSpot Productions, Mondo Bizarro and collaborating artists created in the forest behind the Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society in St. Bernard. There are many poetic pieces and parts, and they come together in a structured but varied way in a work exploring how the people of south Louisiana can restore and preserve their land and culture following massive loss of wetlands. The story's concept is brilliant even if the journey occasionally requires indulgence.
The adventure begins at the Los Islenos Center, where participants split into small groups, each led by one of the show's characters, such as ornithologist Dr. Ozane (Pamela Roberts), scientist Dr. Carol Carl (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham) or Tom Dulac (Nick Slie), a salt-of-the-earth son of oil industry workers. Each group separately makes its way into the forest, and thus each hears a different story and gets a different perspective on the land and its inhabitants.
The groups convene at a Houma Indian-style thatched hut, where a strange man (Will Bowling) presents the leaders with a suitcase, suggesting it contains the power to fulfill their wishes, and this prompts a debate about approaches to restoring the wetlands and whether the fight has already been lost. The trickster figure sews discord, but Dulac and Carl restore calm. The experience kicks into full participatory mode and there's music and dancing. Slie does an excellent job of engaging the crowd, not overplaying sentimental notes while introducing themes about cultural traditions and preservation. He horses around enough to break the ice and guide the first hour of the event to a festive high.
The groups move individually to a second setting, and Cry You One assumes a different tone. The second part follows a more easily marked path, but the ensuing series of vignettes are not predictable, and again each group hears different stories at some points. Unfortunately, the transition between the two halves is long, and an extended dance sequence serves less as a narrative link than filler. The rest of the journey has many impressive moments of storytelling, music and engagement, but it also has lulls that defuse the narrative tension and continuity. At the three-hour mark, the cast still was enthusiastic, but the show seemed to drag.
There are numerous impressive contributions. Many scripted stories are both poetic and on point with the show's greater narrative. Music by Sean LaRocca and a trio of violinists is very well integrated with the story and jubilant in parading interludes. Jeff Becker's many props and installations range from the poignant to cleverly functional, and there's other visual art and photography as well. The exposition is not didactic, but squeezing in so many of the apsects relevant to a conversation about coastal Louisiana is a formidable challenge.
Director Kathy Randels says a production needs to leave room for the audience to interpret the work. There might be too much room here for a show, but it's meant to be more than a theatrical production. The conversation about the wetlands is not diminished into a dramatic device. There are engaging performances by the troupe and many sharply focused illustrations of the predicament south Louisiana faces. While the journey ends in an interesting place with a lovely closing vignette, I found it more pretty and touchy-feely than inspiring. But there's a lot to take in, and this is a show designed to be a different experience for everyone. — WILL COVIELLO