On BLOSSOM at Dixon Place
The first time I tried to attend Blossom, at its Henson Carriage House residency in April 2015, the world of texts and trains conspired against me so I ended up stuck in the lobby area with the house manager for the duration of the show, listening to the audience’s riotous emotion through a thin wall as the delivery guy set up catering for the post-show reception. I did attend the talkback that night, and was captivated by the concept: a retired Hollywood scenic painter with Alzheimer’s careens between lush memories of his films and his current, crumbling relationship with his daughter. Someone’s brilliant little kid asked a poignant question, and you could feel the intergenerational magic of storytelling explode in the room.
Tantalized by that memory, I was eagerly anticipating the Dixon Place premiere of Blossom, and unfortunately fell prey to my own expectations. Spencer Lott, writer, director, and puppet designer of Blossom, has undeniable, incredible talent (like so many puppeteers whom I’ve met through the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center), and I wanted to hold the puppet of James Blossom in my arms at the end of the show, to feel his frailty and magical history for myself. But something of the spirit of that first workshop performance had slipped away in the larger format presentation.
When the play opened on Blossom’s first movie fantasy, I was squeamishly concerned that the entirety of the show would be some kind of hokey TV drama. And yet, by the end, I was much more interested in those fantastical moments than in the human to human drama happening on stage. Layered scenic elements contributed to the transfixing success of the fantasy sequences, including captivating cinematic sound design by Chris Gabriel. In addition, the ensemble cast featuring Jamie Agnello, Chelsea Fryer, Sam Jay Gold, Robert M. Stevenson, and Rowan Magee was incredibly talented in executing the complicated choreography of the show. I was especially taken with Magee’s manipulation of the Blossom puppet. All the puppet characters had oversized hands, which lent them an extra dose of empathy, especially when the human characters held those hands in moments of compassion. Magee demonstrated an actor’s intimate knowledge of the human body, translated through Blossom’s gesticulation.
This version stayed true to the original, delightful concept of diving deeply into Blossom’s fantasy life through puppetry’s already imaginative world of miniature. However, the realism of the plot became a burden on the storytelling. The story is, ultimately, predictable — terminal illness kills our protagonist, and while it’s hard on the daughter, played by Agnello, she takes comfort in knowing he is going to a better place. (Or, as she narrates to conclude the show, “While no one can say for sure, we believe that he is well on his way to his next grand adventure.”) It was evident that this show was deeply felt, and I wasn’t the only one tearing up at the end as Blossom was swept away to that next grand adventure. Moreover, the very idea of old people as puppets was a brilliant metaphor, as we watched established, successful adult puppet characters transform into childish versions of themselves, cared for and manipulated by people half their age.
Despite the difficult subject matter of caring for our elderly loved ones as they lose control over their minds and bodies, the script maintained a sense of humor, with laugh out loud lines like one caretaker greeting an elderly resident with, “So good to see you so aware!” But all of this tenderness and realism did not make up for the inevitable predictability of the story being told — we knew Blossom would become romantically involved with Maisey from the first time she set eyes on him, we knew he would come out of his shell in art class, we knew finances would be a burden on the family (to the tune of $8,000 a month for residential care!), and we knew Alzheimer’s would take our hero away.
But perhaps predictability was the point. Old age comes for everyone, after all, and what a treat to explore Blossom’s haunting visions with him, against the backdrop of his quotidian monotony. This was a puppet show, and the puppets were a joy to behold. Come see for yourself, Blossom runs through September 24, 2016 at Dixon Place.