The Pomology of Sweetness and Light
8 p.m. Thu.-Sun.; 2 p.m. Sun.; through Jan. 30
Candle Factory, 4537 N. Robertson St.; www.theblackforestfancies.com
Looking like a weary Civil War soldier with sullen eyes and long matted dark hair, the near lifesize marionette of John "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman sits in a chair, hunched over with its elbows on his knees in the corner of Pandora Gastelum's Bywater corner home, among the controlled chaos of a prop shop's odds and ends. Gastelum and Nina C. Nichols, co-founders of the Black Forest Fancies, are primping Appleseed, his child consort and would-be bride Clara and new puppets for a third version of The Pomology of Sweetness and Light. In March, they're taking a cast of seven on national and international tours, made possible in part by a 2010 Henson Foundation grant.
Appleseed's story is ripe material, and the Fancies innovated super-sized marionettes that they literally wear like full-body masks to tell the story. They also incorporated their own music and film. In spite of the production's tremendously creative core it has always been rough at the edges and never without complications.
"It was like a compulsion since we started," Nichols says. The duo first seized upon the idea and started researching it in 2008 while working with Aboriginal groups in Taiwan to build large-scale puppets and parade floats. When they returned to New Orleans in the fall, they applied for a seed grant from the Henson Foundation to start building large-scale puppets, but that was a Catch-22 proposition.
"You had to submit a video of what the production would look like in order to get the grant to start building it," says Nichols, who partially supports herself by doing stop-animation with a local film company.
The Fancies have drawn support from Louisiana Division of the Arts grants in 2008 and '09 as well as grants from the Andy Warhol and Annenberg foundations. The Henson project grant is larger than the seed grant they missed in 2009. They also do parade and craft workshops in area high schools, arranged with the help of Silence is Violence and Young Audiences. Through a patchwork of funding, scrimping, saving and salvaging, they were able to stage the first version of Pomology in May 2009.
The legend of Johnny Appleseed wandering the frontier planting apple trees in the late 1700s and early 1800s is well known. The Fancies color Appleseed as an ascetic mystic, preferring to sleep on the forest floor rather than mingle with the encroaching frontier settlers, though he labored to seed apple orchards for them.
"(The story) was supposed to be about wild propagation and diversity in nature," Nichols says.
But there also was a temptation side to the apple-planting story. A lesser-known part of Appleseed's lore is his fondness for young girls.
"He had sort of a reputation as a baby dangler," Gastelum says. "That he socialized most readily with little girls."
In Pomology, Appleseed takes the early teenaged Clara with him on his travels and mentors her and protects her from the dangers of the frontier and towns. There's nothing explicitly lurid about it, but that aspect of the story didn't sit well with all audiences. One parent escorted her daughter out of the show over the prospect of their relationship. While the Fancies don't create their shows for children (and now warn audiences about mature themes), they don't believe their content is off limits to families. Their first big project together, the marionette operetta The Tragical Ballad of Black Bonnet also addressed material not typically directed at all ages. It is based on a true story from 16th-century Scotland in which an intersexed housemaid and the sequestered daughter of a nobleman had a relationship and a child.
"Our stories are OK for progressive families," Gastelum says. "We don't use profanity, there's no overt sexuality, there's no graphic violence.
"We're open to looking at alternative love stories. That's tough for family audiences."
Their stories are far less violent or menacing than many of the original Grimm's fairy tales, Nichols notes.
They wrestled with everything they were trying to fit into Pomology, and it changed significantly by the time they performed it at the New Orleans Fringe Festival in November. They focused on the narrative and left out some material.
"That was our lesson of the year," Nichols says. "You can't have a play just about ideas. You have to have a narrative."
The original show was performed with a live band but in a limited space. At the Fringe, they added two aerialists to the show and used massive props on rolling scaffolds, making use of the high ceilings in the deconsecrated Trinity Church in Bywater. In order to travel with the show, they've scaled down, shedding the aerialist portion, converted some props to puppets and settled on a single fiddle player instead of a live band. But the puppets they have reworked for the third show are still large as life, and it's no small expense to travel with such a big operation.
"We're gambling," Nichols says. "It's a huge gamble to take all that money and rent space at the Theater for the New City in New York."
Gastelum and Nichols both came to puppet theater with some useful travel experiences and coping skills.
"We got our start touring with heavy metal bands," Nichols says. The two have sung in bands and performed in ad hoc Bywater shows, circulating among the bohemian neighborhood's music, theater and craft crowds. Their creativity has spilled into many media, including Nichols' visual art, various puppet, prop and doll projects (evidenced on their Web site www.theblackforestfancies.com) and even a cake fetish video (also on the site).
Nothing about their paths to puppet theater followed a conventional route. Nichols arrived in New Orleans during a train-hopping phase, fell in love with the city and stayed. She studied biology at the University of New Orleans for a while, but eventually went to New York and earned a degree in filmmaking.
Gastelum grew up in Austin, Texas and had ties to New Orleans but found herself in New York. She grew disillusioned with that city on a couple of career fronts.
"I was studying to be a mortician," she says. "Supporting myself as an embalmer and doing theater on the side wasn't working out for me."
She left a fledgling theater company in New York and moved to New Orleans. She still supports herself with freelance work providing a New York dance theater company with masks and costumes.
Gastelum and Nichols created the Black Forest Fancies before Hurricane Katrina. They set up a studio to build and display dolls at the Colton School art collective in 2008, but they have spent a lot of time since the storm doing puppet and theater work abroad. Their spring tour will include some Fringe festivals in the United States (Indianapolis, Minnesota), solo shows (Austin, New York) and European festivals.
They are encouraged about the growth of the New Orleans Fringe Festival and hope it will help attract more theater festival directors to New Orleans.
"A lot of festivals are pre-programmed," Gastelum says. "The director travels around to other festivals during the year (to choose performers). We want to see them come here. You, as a festival director in Dublin, should come here."