Zebra Crossing Theatre
By Carol Burbank
Simplicity is the heart of bold theater. It demands dedication and trust in characters and their stories. It pares down convention and makes room for the unconventional.
In the biographical play Yellow Feather, the life of the painter Dorothy Brett makes the ensemble's directness and almost ascetic plainness eloquent. On Zebra Crossing's small, bare stage, playwrights Amanda Selwyn and Sonya Bibilos have made bodies the currency of narrative, combining dance, sign language, pantomime, and stillness with Brett's words. Projected images of Brett's paintings, quotes from her diary and other writings, and the parallel story of Shirah, a young woman on a quest for stories of women artists, are woven together to bring the painter and her philosophies of life into the present.
Brett, a British immigrant, is best known as the friend of more famous artists, among them the Bloomsbury circle in England, Georgia O'Keeffe, and D.H. Lawrence, who lived with her in Taos, New Mexico. Although her work, through her friend Leopold Stokowski, was the inspiration for the Disney film Fantasia, few people outside Taos are familiar with her brightly colored paintings of Native American rituals and southwestern landscapes, which she introduced to O'Keeffe. Brett's deafness, eccentricity, and difficult relationships with Lawrence and her other friends are touched on only as humanizing details in this romanticized tribute.
The use of sign language in this production is at first unsettling, because it's seldom a translation of what's happening onstage. Ralitsa Popcheva is a fluent signer who plays the most compelling of the multiple Dorothy Bretts here, and she sometimes speaks in sign in response to events, or addresses Shirah while other, spoken conversations are going on. Popcheva plays a loving ghost, welcoming and nurturing the young woman. In one scene Shirah silently reads a poem and Popcheva dances the poem with her hands. Only after several minutes does someone begin reading the words for our ears, though what we hear confirms the impressions and emotions we've understood from the signing. In this play, sign language is honored as a language, and the audience has an opportunity to learn by experiencing it. This requires an unusual kind of attentiveness that helps us embrace watchful quietness, just as Shirah learns to be peaceful and alert in the landscape of Taos.
Essentially Shirah moves from urban nervousness to calm stillness as she learns more about Brett and acclimates to the Taos scene. Shirah is a cursory character; we know little about her. Yet Bibilos gives her an emotional persona despite the character's surface vagueness, playing a generic seeker whose journey becomes the audience's.
The other Bretts are the least interesting presences onstage. Given the forcefulness of the artist's character, as reported in the play itself, these willowy, enthusiastic, naive dancers and musicians are miscast. Their symbolic ecstatic gestures are a poor complement to Popcheva's clarity. And their pantomimes of scenes between Brett and her friends are too sketchy to go beyond silent narrative explanations, techniques to maintain the quiet that is so important to this production. More important, their half-choreographed flitting is symptomatic of the sentimentality that weakens the play.
By presenting Brett as a kind of universal lost mentor, Selwyn and Bibilos develop a common theme in biographies of artists. But Brett's life and words militate against this benign interpretation, in essence a ghosting of the artist's life and character. Certainly Brett painted remarkable metaphysical and spiritual art and spoke movingly of "a river of light moving through all of us." The gentle journey of discovery we follow in this play is an honest one, but we're shielded from other aspects of the artist. Her piercing voice, her detailed accounts of events, and her brash sense of humor, all reported in an interview included in the press kit, are hinted at here but never allowed to have their full force.
The playwrights list numerous bibliographic and archival sources. Yet it's as if they tried to capture Brett's essence rather than her living self. The contrast between the healing legacy she left through her spiritual writings and paintings and the hard-edged life she lived would have sharpened this touching production into a more powerful poignancy.
Yet Yellow Feather represents a strong beginning, with its wholehearted, unconventional devotion to spiritual details. The narrative, pared down to dance and motion, achieves the rhythm of memory and brings many levels of storytelling into play, giving the stage the feel of an easel where moments are paintings growing slowly into the frame of the stage. Occasionally vague, Yellow Feather floats in our consciousness, enacting the process of living through art by playing with the shape of an artist's life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Phot of cast of Yellow Feather.