Lee Breuer’s epic La Divina Caricatura shines at La Mama

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Health issues delayed the world premier of Lee Breuer’s new spectacle, La Divina Caricatura until last night. But the three-hour, multidisciplinary production, featuring actors, singers, musicians, puppets, puppeteers and a sound effects man, showed that Breuer, who is 76, remains a staggeringly vital creative mind. It opens tonight.

Tuesday night, we got a look at what is just the first part of a planned Caricatura trilogy at La Mama, in a co-production with St. Ann’s Warehouse. Its subtitle, The Shaggy Dog, is the essence of truth-in-titling: The show’s twisting plot tells the epic tale of a dog, Rose, who falls in love with her artist master, John, and the results are salacious and hilarious, heart-breaking and philosophically-charged.

The plot twists take us through all manner of inner-species mischief, fantasy, passion and philosophizing, and although the show ends with what feels like a very solid coda, one has to wonder what Breuer has in mind for Parts II and III. Going into the story in any depth here would take too much time and space; and in any case, to my eye (and ear), what makes La Divina Caricatura amazing is not its content nearly as much as its form.

La Divina Caricatura is a spectacular production, its sweeping staging evoking everything from the most down-and-dirty sex and violence to grand, even spiritual (or at least, psychedelic), epiphanies. It does that by filling La Mama’s open, expansive space with all manner of action, human and puppet, with actors and singers voicing the puppets (and their emotions) from stages to each side and the rear, surrounding the puppetry “turntables” on which the puppet action takes place.

To the far left, an expert five-man band holds down the ever shifting musical styles with remarkable skill, and at the end of the day, for me, it was the music that kept the show moving forward with nary a slip in energy. Breuer’s narrative line may occasionally wander, or falter, as he tries to explore his profusion of ideas shaggy-dog-style, but the music of composer Lincoln Schleifer – who met Breuer while playing in the latter’s remarkable The Gospel at Colonus – is a wonder.

Rooted in classic soul and gospel, Schleifer’s score (with additional work by Bob Telson and John Margolis, who plays piano, and sings and speaks the part of John), ranges from reggae to European folk styles, getting into the hearts of the characters, human and animal, with emotional precision and great musical warmth. Schleifer is a hugely accomplished player – he’s played with dozens of classic artists, from Donald Fagen to Levon Helm to Clarence Fountain – but what dazzles is his ability to create songs that are original, funny and drive the plot forward, yet sound like something you should recognize from long ago.

And with an embarrassment of vocal riches at his disposal – the backing vocals are done by a male vocal quartet on the left side of the rear stage, and a female vocal trio on the right, with the keyboard player doing voices and singing upstage – one can almost hear the delight Schleifer took in composing the songs. Like Breuer, he delights in subverting the classic forms, couching new ideas in familiar forms.

But despite Schleifer’s wide-screen score, and Breuer’s fevered, impassioned, extravagant imagination, the show ultimately comes down to the Rose the Dog and the actor who gives her voice, and song: Bernardine Mitchell.

Mitchell, who played Antigone in The Gospel at Colonus, first appears as a homeless woman in the sprawling subway station that serves as a backdrop for much of the action. She doesn’t seem to be of much consequence. But as she takes her place at the front right of the stage and begins what is essentially the narration of the work, through the voice of Rose, she is progressively transformed: She takes off her sunglasses, her head covering, her bulky rags, and eventually reveals herself in a gorgeous evening dress. Her anonymous down-and-out demeanor blossoms into beauty, a transformation that lights up the whole stage.

And then there’s her voice. In an ensemble of singers that includes the remarkable Maxine Brown and Ben Odom (of the Soul Stirrers), Mitchell still stands out: Warm, rich, resonant and full of wit and sympathy for her canine character. Mitchell comes close to stealing a show that is much bigger than any of its parts, and she does so without even appearing to try.

Which means that, ultimately, it is Rose herself who pulls most at the heartstrings. Her wholly-inappropriate, yet deeply-felt passion for her unworthy master makes her sympathetic. But even beyond that, what truly dazzles is the magic of seeing her move, handled by the seen-yet-unseen puppeteers, under the guidance of puppetry director Jessica Scott.

At one point late in the second act, I was captivated by watching the puppeteer who was handling Rose. As  with the other puppeteers, her head was wrapped in black lace to obscure her face, but her eyes were fixed completely on Rose, as she moved the puppet’s head and front of its body, both manipulating a material object and, somehow, feeling the moment through the character of Rose. It was a spectacular moment in which stage craft and emotional veracity converged, a moment of great delicacy and beauty.

Which also describes La Caricatura Divina. It is quirky and at points awkward, it’s low-brow humor may offend some (a number of seats were empty after intermission), and the second act dragged at points. But Breuer’s vision and Schleifer’s score, handled by remarkable musicians and singers (and puppeteers), is undeniably original and well-executed.

La Divina Caricatura runs through Dec. 22 at La Mama, 74A E. 4th Street. Tickets are $40 and are available at www.lamama.com or by phone at 212-475-7710.

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