Monday, February 9, 2009

Trio Molemo!

When I was in high school in Fort Worth, TX, my friend Tom Paul Grissom told me about this theater company somewhere off Highway 80 (I was never quite sure of the exact location) where he volunteered. If I remember correctly, he'd worked on Hip Pocket Theatre's adaptation of Tarzan (in looking at their history, it must have been the 1978 production); I think he also told me about a production that he'd seen called The Lake Worth Monster. As a teenager, my theater-going was pretty much limited to the press passes my father got to see the summer musicals at Casa MaƱana (which always seemed to be Ruta Lee in The Unsinkable Molly Brown... even when it wasn't), Shakespeare plays in Trinity Park (which I loved) and productions at our church (where I performed in what is possibly the most ill-conceived musical ever, adapted from the film of The Robe—would I joke about something like that?); the stuff Hip Pocket was doing, as Tom Paul described it to me, was nothing like any theater I'd ever seen. I mean, I'd never heard of anyone using puppets or ritualized movement in a play! It all just sounded too weird for me.

As a result of my youthful ignorance, I missed out on Hip Pocket productions throughout my high school and college years. By the time I fully appreciated what Johnny Simons was doing on the outskirts of town, I was already living in New York and my visits home never seemed to coincide with a performance. Finally, in 2003, Catherine and I were in Fort Worth and able to make time to see a play at the Oak Acres Amphitheatre (their last season in that space): Bad Girls in the Big City. As we had expected, the show was a blast—a campy, noirish B movie send-up—the rustic little outdoor theater among the trees was enchanting, and we both left that evening wishing we'd tried to get involved with the company when we'd lived in town.

This past weekend, Fort Worth came to HERE Arts Center in New York. Trio Molemo!, a series of short musical numbers and performance pieces created and performed by Johnny and his daughters, Lorca and Lake, is a delightful and incredibly sweet production. The content for the evening is relatively light and there's no through line tying the pieces together apart from a few home movies of Simons family outings around Fort Worth—at the lake, to the Botanical Gardens; these brief reality moments, all shot by Johnny, provide the show with a warm, affectionate fatherly perspective. Each family member has personal moments in the spotlight: Johnny accompanies himself on the piano to sing a few original songs, Lorca performs a monologue she wrote and a solo dance, Lake has a Lecoq-ish clown sketch and a lovely puppet/movement piece in which she becomes a soaring bird. But the real draw, the moments that make Trio Molemo! a unique theater experience, are the pieces with all three of the Simons together: they are remarkably graceful and gifted physical performers, they take such obvious joy in these shared moments, and their joy readily infects the audience.

In many non-traditional performances, the artists' strive to divorce the characters or the events from any emotional experiences and, very often, this approach is effective and appropriate for the work. It was nice to be reminded that human beings are capable of connecting with one another—that, occasionally, we really do need one another. That it was demonstrated here by three family members only made the experience richer and more full for me.

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