It's the first of many stark propositions in the Black Forest Fancies' puppet and multimedia account of the relationship between Johnny Appleseed and Clara, whom he takes as his ward at 10 years old, expecting to marry her when she comes of age. While the imbalance in the relationship appears unseemly, the situation isn't entirely bad. Her parents have no plans to further her education, and they doubt they will be able find her a husband. Appleseed takes her on his arduous mission to plant apple orchards for frontiersmen, and he mentors her on his naturalist philosophy and Christian vision, as re-imagined by the Fancies. It's hard not to see her as better off for the arrangement, even if it is creepy when she is mistaken for his daughter.
The recent run of the show at the Candle Factory is the Fancies' third version of the production, and the story is largely in tact from the run in the New Orleans Fringe Festival. The scale of props and the stage have changed so the company can take it on tour in the United States and Europe in the spring and summer. Some vignettes formerly featuring aerialists have been changed to puppet scenes, and the action flows better. The live band has been paired down to a fiddler, who also voices Appleseed. The show features all original music, film and innovative life-size marionettes as well as more traditional marionettes, puppets and props. That alone is an impressive body of work from Fancies creators Pandora Andrea Gastelum and Nina C. Nichols.
The show offers a bounty of creative flourishes and imaginative storytelling, but there are moments when it seems like a puzzle with a few extra pieces. There are competing views of wild nature versus order, spirituality and freedom, temptation versus rebellion. At times, cultivating the fertility of the apple is good, at other times, harvesting orchards or making cider is portrayed as the ominous creep of civilization or the reaping of vice. Some of that reflects views that changed over time (i.e., is frontier expansion Manifest Destiny or imperialism?). Apparently, the apple offers different temptations and benefits, but the material is richly provocative and engaging throughout. It's a very impressive original work even if it occasionally bites off more than it can chew. — Will Coviello