When first I read about this play, the promotional info said something about the script being randomly received by the Pandemic Collective production company, and that the identity of the author was unknown.
What I thought was a bit of pre-show marketing, though, turned out to be true: No one knows who wrote the voodoo revenge tale “Laveau,” now playing at Denver’s Theater 29. Before the show, you can enjoy a complimentary Voodoo Donut and flip through a portion of the script in a binder whilst pondering why anyone would submit in this manner.
It’s a curious twist accompanying an even more bizarre story and a particularly unique production the likes of which I’ve never before seen. The main reason for that is Katy Williams, an artist who accompanies the show with shadow puppetry cast onto a white scrim upstage. It’s the only set piece, and on it Williams displays a wide range of creepy imagery: bayou grass and trees, a house on stilts, a giant cricket, a deer skull, a talking human-ish skull, some kind of skeletal water buffalo — and a lot more.
I took the pre-show email’s advice and sat next to Williams’s table, which was covered in her many cutouts as well as various colored flashlights, translucent plastic, glass jars and other things that look cool or creepy when you shine a light through them. I watched her strap on knee pads in preparation for the show, hold flashlights in her mouth when both hands were busy and otherwise work almost nonstop as the action continued on the stage just a few feet away.
At times, it was tricky to follow what the actors were doing at the same time I was watching Williams out of the corner of my eye and comparing what she was doing on her table to what was appearing on the scrim.
The shadow puppetry was part of a somewhat immersive theater experience in the delightfully dinky theater. Characters appeared behind us delivering lines, they spoke from behind the scrim, eerie voices come from the speakers and the whole thing takes place in near darkness. Sound designer Ashely Campbell did a nice job with a mixture of bayou music, sound effects and the occasional gothic sting as events unfolded onstage. And Shannon Johnson on the lights managed to keep just enough light on things while continually making us strain to see detail.
All of this strong work pulled together by director and Pandemic Collective visionary Rhea Amos makes for a visually intriguing show. Done with no intermission in just under 90 minutes, Amos succeeds in taking the audience to the deep, dark place where the events of “Laveau” unfold. She directed “Laveau” with a firm hand on the basic blocking and character interaction, leaving the rest of the show to survive on the strength of the script and the acting.
And this is where the wheels come off.
Trouble on the bayou
Much of the heavy lifting in “Laveau” is done by the character of Brigitte, played by Andalysia Ivey. A young black woman who lives under the oppressive thumb of her miserable and abusive grandmother (Latifah Johnson), she longs to run away with her almost-boyfriend Wes (Ronald McQueen) but is tormented by disturbing dreams and the odd behavior of her grandmother (who she calls “Mama”). A stranger named Lavinia (Rav’n Moon) shows up in Brigitte’s dreams, but she has a hard time separating them from reality.
Lavinia tells Brigitte about her mother, the reason her grandmother is such a bitch all the time (some kind of curse) and a bunch of other stuff I had difficulty following. She tells her about Madame Laveau, who placed the curse on the grandmother, and how they’d suffered as slaves back in the day.
Much of the dialog is as tortured as the characters, striving for some kind of lofty and meaningful elocution but landing in a swamp of B-movie horror trope.
What had been a relatively slow-moving affair accelerates to a sort of Scooby-Doo ending, where all the dangling plot points are attempted to be put in place, new wrinkles are added (Brigitte gets suddenly and inexplicably pregnant) and one main character gets offed rather unceremoniously.
It’s all a bit much to follow, leaving me to think that, when it comes to scripts, you get what you pay for. Ivey is an earnest young actress who nailed all of her voluminous lines, but she’s got a way to go before she can carry a show like this with authenticity. None of the other actors rose above the material, leaving much of the show’s best features in the hands of Williams and her puppets and the technical staff.
And at times, even the shadow puppetry came to be too much of a good thing. Such an element should be only enhancing, never distracting, and there were quite a few times where the shadow imagery didn’t match the action on stage. (What was the deer skull all about, for example — other than looking cool and creepy?)
All that said, fans of horror, the macabre, the dark and the shadows may well find “Laveau” to be a fun night of theater. There’s plenty to talk about on your way out the door, and it’s always unsettling to contemplate dark arts like voodoo, the tormented soul and whatever release awaits on the other side.