The Animals and Children Took to the Streets by London-based 1927 Theatre Company is a brilliantly original production of fantasy and sardonic wit, with roots in modern dark cabaret, silent movies, and film noir. Three female actors in whiteface, inhabiting an animated world of digital projections, perform a tale of urban unrest in a dilapidated tenement complex, wryly called Bayou Mansions. Realism trumps idealism, hopeful flickers of heart-light are squelched by iron necessity, and in the end the dire social problems are in no way solved. But 1927 Theatre makes great fun of the going nevertheless.
The Campbell Hall performance Thursday night was the last of three U.S. stops, as 1927 begins a long tour of Europe and Asia that will land them at the Salzburg Festival at the end of July. The company was founded in 2005 when writer and spoken-word performer Suzanne Andrade met illustrator Paul Barritt, who initially helped her with cover art for her CDs. The confluence of Barritt’s spare line drawings and Andrade’s edgy sensibility quickly grew from marketing to stage work, as Barritt began to create animated accompaniment to Andrade’s short pieces. One year later, performer and costume designer Esme Appleton and composer and silent-movie pianist Lillian Henley joined Andrade and Barritt. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 1927’s breakout piece, was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007, played to sold-out houses in the U.K., toured internationally, and earned the coveted Peter Brook: Empty Space Award for Best Ensemble in 2008. The Animals and Children Took to the Streets premiered in 2010 and has enjoyed equal success.
The feature that most distinguishes 1927 from other theaters is the dream world of projected images that takes the place of fixed sets. In fact, one of the most startling moments of the evening occurred after the show, when Andrade, Appleton, and Henley came out to take their bows in front of—what turned out to be—three plain white walls. The strange hybrid world of live-action/animation has long been summoned in film (e.g., Disney’s Mary Poppins), but live performance seems to have been waiting for the graphic flexibility and lower production costs of the computer age before tackling the parallel challenge. We are long accustomed to thinking of lighting and scenery as separate but related features. The 1927 experience is lighting as scenery. The potential is limitless, and 1927 seems to be leading the way here.
Sometimes this means a stable and expansive set, as with the detailed tenement building in the opening scene. But much of the visual wonder is in the dynamic illusions. Characters rise in moving elevators or run through cities with outlines of buildings whirling past. Ever-present cockroaches scurry along every tenement wall. There are big effects: The hand of God descends during the would-be-heroine’s dire moment of need and lifts her through layers of sky—clouds, celestial clock gears, and stars—only (of course) to indifferently drop her. There are mundane effects: Shutters sway; the sweep of a broom kicks up digital dust; clouds of insecticide blow from an applicator. The animator’s gags provide amusing, sometimes macabre, diversions: ZZZs of a little girl’s sleep drifts across the walls, only to be slapped by the bath sponge of the kiddie-scorning shrew next door; when the shy tenement caretaker reaches out to befriend the same cartoon girl by performing the removable thumb trick, she one-ups him by gleefully removing her whole arm and waving it at him.
The charm of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is that these tricks of the light are always in the service of content and style that are unmistakably dark: the dingy tenement which is a hotbed for social unrest; the morose antihero who ruminates in film-noir flatness about his wasted life, to the accompaniment of mournful accordion. Whiteface and pantomime evoke a weird world of clowns and underground cabaret. The era of silent pictures is present in the flickering projections and bouncing piano music, exaggerated gestures and physical comedy. Whole scenes are awash in monotonous sepia.
But none of these effects would mean anything without timeless theater basics: Andrade’s tight writing; solid performance skills that require singing and very precise choreography; and Henley’s score and live backstage piano accompaniment (appearing in character through a window in the screen). The 1927 Theatre Company combines an intelligent sense of the vintage with a thoroughly modern approach, and reminds us that anything is possible in that living human encounter we call theater.