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Open Door


L-R: Dan Seda, Allison Hiroto, Federico Restrepo, Denise Greber. Photo by Richard Greene.

by Jonathan Slaff

A Grand Puppet Theater Work with Song, by Federico Restrepo and Loco 7 with music composed by Elizabeth Swados.

While opinions range from "open door" advocates of free immigration to "closed door" advocates of zero immigration, there is a corresponding "paranoia versus hope" dialogue on whether our national policy can ever be resolved. That "paranoia versus hope" mindset descends heavily upon the community of recent immigrants and is inspiration for "Open Door," a grand puppet theater work with song, being prepared collaboratively by Colombia-born master puppet theater artist Federico Restrepo, his puppet theater troupe Loco 7 and award-winning composer Elizabeth Swados. La MaMa E.T.C. will present the work December 1 to 17 in its Annex Theater.

This production is the inaugural event of the brand-new Teatro Stage Fest (www.teatrostagefest.org), an artistic cultural and educational festival that will spotlight center stage the best of Latino and Iberian theater from New York, Latin America and Spain. The production also marks the 20th anniversary of Mr. Restrepo's company, Loco 7 (www.loco7.com), and its ninth production at La MaMa E.T.C., which is celebrating its 45th birthday this fall.

Restrepo is known for puppet theater productions which mix the soul of Colombia with his experiences living in NYC. "Open Door" centers on the many people who make up New York City from diverse cultural backgrounds: North American, South American, African, Middle Eastern, European and Asian. The performers will include three musicians, twelve dancers/puppeteers.

Utilizing original rhythmic music, live musicians, dancers, handheld stick puppets, masks and larger then life marionettes, the piece will explore the paranoid perceptions, longings to belong and feelings of alienation among the immigrants and second generation Americans. The production is an urban fantasy set in NYC where these various people live. Its central metaphors all derive from the paranoid perceptions that keep new immigrants and naturalized citizens "Americans" from seeing clearly, as well as the immigrants' search for the "American Dream" that can propel them into a more hopeful future. Puppet theater provides an articulate medium for contrasting the immigrants' inner and outer realities.

There are eighteen-foot apartment buildings where, in each window, a large marionette is attached to a dancer downstairs, as if to say, "I am myself, and the puppet attached to me is my background." There is also a massive weltanschauung scene where governments and corporations suck through straws from a huge plastic globe, while people metaphorically drown in the foreground. Video segments deal with the literal metaphor of an "open door" -- people opening a door to leave a house, to cross a threshold, to run away, to confront the other side, to search for something new. The characters ask, "Will we ever fit in and be accepted as "real" Americans or will we be stuck facing the same issues that drove us from our homelands?"

"Open Door" will be conceived, designed, choreographed and directed by Federico Restrepo. The music will be composed by Elizabeth Swados. Lyrics will be by Federico Restrepo and Elizabeth Swados based on interviews with the cast. They will be mostly sounds, mixed with languages of all the countries.

Elizabeth Swados describes her music as a raucous chorale, evoking the words and musics of the many separate cultures that are living, literally, next door to each other here but are actually very distant. She faced a similar challenge in "Jerusalem," where she used 14 languages from the Middle East and Old Jerusalem to evoke the forces of hate and reconociliation in the old city. Though there are similar ideologies at work in "Open Door," the score will be radically different because the piece calls for a modern urban sound. She intends to entwine sounds and music of a city apartment building to evoke the paranoia and tensions of everyday urban life. These will include the crossover of radio and TV sounds as song and everyday noise as music.

Mr. Restrepo last collaborated with Ms. Swados on "Bokan The Bad Hearted" at La MaMa (2004). The piece was a puppet dance drama that staged a legend of the indigenous tribes of the Amazon Jungle using life-sized puppets, live original music, dance and video. The New York Times (Neil Genzlinger) wrote, "Whether you follow the story or simply absorb the sensory experience, you know you have been enchanted when you step outside into the December air. For 90 minutes or so, you may have thought you were actually in the jungle." The review commended the play's colorful imagery and dance, the emotive sound-language of the characters and puppeteers and the haunting score by Swados. "Bokan the Bad Hearted" was nominated for three awards in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards in 2005: Best Performance Art Piece, Best Choreography (Federico Restrepo) and Best Costume Design (Denise Greber and Federico Restrepo).

In other collaborations, Restrepo designed puppets for and choreographed "Everything Is Different" (2004), an educational video directed by Elizabeth Swados, and created puppets for her production, "Jabu," at The Flea Theatre in 2005.

Federico Restrepo was born in Bogota he began his training of mime and ballet as a young boy with Priscila Welton and Miroslav Kura. He began dancing with the Ballet National de Colombia in 1983. He first came to New York in 1985 and studied at the Merce Cunningham School and danced with the Empty Hands Company headed by Cho Koo-Hyun and Yoshiko Chuma's School of Hard Knocks. Since 1985 he has developed a puppetry style which incorporates dance and design. His goal as a director has been to design the puppets as an extension of the dancer's body. His intense love and passion for the history of the Americas and his journeys in New York are a constant source for all his work. He has created eight original pieces at La MaMa, most of which have had subsequent tours through out the world. "Bokan The Bad Hearted" (2004), with score by Elizabeth Swados, was a puppet dance drama that staged Amazonian legends. "9 Windows" (2002) was an investigation into the immigrant's mind. "Colores" (1998), created exciting conceptual images of the evolution of the Mestizo people of Colombia, whom he lovingly refers to as the children of the Spanish conquest. That production was part of Jim Henson Foundation's International Festival of Puppet Theater. "Aguirre, the Spiral of the Warrior" (1996) was based on the legend of the Spanish conquistador who rebelled against Spain to create his own empire. "Cosecha" (1990) was a work on the lives of Colombian refugee farmers. "Loco 7" (1989) was a multi-media odyssey through the subways of NY with giant puppet subways and was the origin of his company's name, Loco 7. It followed two other Gotham fantasies: "Locombia" (1986) and "Carrera" (1988).

This past summer, Mr. Restrepo appeared in Tirana, Albania in "Aesclepius" by Ellen Stewart, performed by The Great Jones Repertory, and in "Il corvo" by Carlo Gozzi, also by Ellen Stewart, at the Venice Biennale. His designs of "9 Windows" and "Bokan the Bad Hearted" will be featured June 14-24, 2007 in the Prague Quadrennnial (USITT - United States National Exposition Prague). The exhibition will travel to Houston then tour throughout the United States in 2008. In addition to his work with Loco 7, Restrepo has appeared as a member of the Great Jones Repertory Company in Ellen Stewart's "Herakles Via Phaedra", "Perseus", "Antigone", "Mythos Oedipus," "Dionysus Fillus Dei," "Monk and The Hangman's Daughter," "Seven Against Thebes" and "Draupadi." He is a resident choreographer and puppet designer of La MaMa E.T.C. Since 2003, Mr. Restrepo has also been a teaching artist for New York City Public Schools.

Elizabeth Swados began her professional career as a composer at La MaMa, where she worked with Peter Brook and Andrei Serban and won her first Obie at age 21 for setting "Medea" to ethnic music. Her memorable La MaMa productions include "Fragments of a Greek Trilogy" with Serban, "Crow" with Robbie Anton and the opera-oratorio "Jerusalem." In 1996, she directed a pair of her own musicals, "Doonesbury Flashbacks," based on Garry Trudeau's comic strip, and "The Emperor's New Clothes" based loosely on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, at La MaMa. During the last few seasons, she has scored two more epic plays for the Great Jones Repertory, "Seven Against Thebes" and "Antigone," both by Ellen Stewart, and directed two other original musicals for teenagers. Swados has been nominated for Tony, Drama Desk, Ace and Emmy Awards and has won several Obies, Outer Critics Circle Awards, a PEN Citation, and an Anne Frank National Foundation for Jewish Culture award. Her Broadway credits also include "Doonesbury." Her Off-Broadway credits also include, among others, "Alice in Wonderland" (with Meryl Streep), "Dispatches," "The Haggadah", "Jerusalem," "Rap Music Ronnie" (with Gary Trudeau), and "Missionaries." Music for "Open Door is commissioned by the American Music Center Live Music for Dance Program".

This production was made in part with support from Ellen Stewart and La MaMa E.T.C., The Jim Henson Foundation; American Music Center Live Music for Dance Program, and is sponsored by TeatroStageFest.

WHERE AND WHEN:
December 1-17, 2006
La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
Presented by La MaMa E.T.C.
Th-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm; $20. ($2 discount with Passport to Puppet Theater)
Box office (212) 475-7710, online ticketing available at www.lamama.org
(DATES HAVE BEEN CHANGED. This show was originally announced for November 16 to December 3.)

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