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July 14, 2014
Review: Feather Gatherers
Nikki Calonge as an Urchin, Admiral Grey as The Orphan, Ean Sheehy as The Narrator in "Feather Gatherers". Photo by Russ Rowland.

In Feather Gatherers, presented at The New Ohio Theatre as a part of the Ice Factory Festival, Normandy Sherwood and Craig Flanagin, along with The Drunkard's Wife, their troupe of actors, dancers, and musicians, remind us that sometimes the best stories are the ones that have already been told, and it is our duty to pick them up and dust them off, to invent new ways of telling these old tales. And Feather Gatherers bases itself in a truly old tale, a centuries-old Russian folktale that warns of making deals with the devil, no matter how sweet they may seem.

There is a curious, electric joy in folksy theatre, theatre that speaks to you, strives to hit you as much in your gut as in your head. From the moment the septet, dressed in feathered caps and suspenders, moseys, half barefoot, onto the cluttered, fabric draped, stage to score our age-old yarn, we know we are in for theatre that refuses to play by the rules or fall neatly into one category or another.

But some order must be maintained, so the play takes as its backbone the loose plot of the Russian folktale and parable known as "The Soldier and the Devil," and more specifically Igor Stravinsky's dramatic rendering from 1918, which he set to music and retitled, "L'Histoire du Soldat," or, "The Soldier's Tale." To tell this version of our story, we need a narrator (Ean Sheehy), the Devil (Juliana Francis Kelly), and of course, our fated soldier (Jess Barbagallo). The former two quickly reveal themselves, but that's when things start to go awry. The narrator deadpans, the devil smirks, and an orphan (Admiral Grey), dressed as a shrub to collect offerings to bring the rain, wanders into the tale, through a "hole she saw for herself and prized open."

From there on out, the only way I could possibly describe what occurs is as an unbridled outpouring of energy, a very simple narrative that struggles to retain linearity amongst folk songs, ecstatic dance battles, gypsy ceremonies, audience interruption (preplanned, but surprising nonetheless), and characters who don't seem to want to behave as they're supposed to.

Juliana Francis Kelly as The Devil in "Feather Gatherers". Photo by Russ Rowland.
Juliana Francis Kelly as The Devil in "Feather Gatherers". Photo by Russ Rowland.

Somehow, Sherwood and Flanagin have managed to elevate this orgiastic panoply to a place of sincerity and intelligence while also imbuing it throughout with a screwball bawdiness and irreverence. It is a patchwork of inspiration, from folk tales to Hungarian Black Wave film, folk songs to Stravinsky, Twyla Tharp to the Three Stooges. I'm sure this is due not only to the seasoned writers, but also to the collective work of a company who thinks, works, and breathes as one (I even heard whispers behind me that the utterly adorable, kindergarten-age fiddler who lent her talents now and then was the Devil's daughter). Because of this I honestly don't think I could pick any standout performances: I was truly impressed across the board by the wittiness, playfulness, and masterful physicality of the players.

In the end, as all parables must, the narrator offered the story's moral. But curiously, the sweeping, final crescendo of the band drowned out what he had to say almost entirely. To be honest, because of the sheer, bizarre spectacle of the whole thing, I wasn't sure if this was just an unfortunate technical oversight brought on by an overly enthusiastic band, or one last tongue-in-cheek wink at the audience about, perhaps, the dangers of moralizing. Either way, it was a moral story for the modern age, and I think that calls for a slightly sloppier ending anyways, technicolor instead of black and white.

In fact, I think perhaps, in place of a moral, we can find a metaphor. The orphan, searching for company and friendship to ease the burden of life at the outskirts of society, becomes more prophetic and pontificating throughout our story, finding herself settled in the end in a "beautiful organic society based on work and love," where the soldier, after his tango with the devil, is welcomed with open arms. What is this place in our day and age if not the theater, the artistic haven? This, indeed, is the place of magic, whimsy, and solace. A place where gender can be eschewed, wealth is irrelevant, and all can be equal. A place where orphans, soldiers, Drunkard's Wives, and yes, even the devil alike can find their happy ending.

Through July 12th at The New Ohio Theatre, as a part of the Ice Factory Festival, which runs through August 2nd.

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Written by: Emily Gawlak
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