On Living in ‘It Didn’t Have to Come to This’ – A Response to Tiny Hornets
Tiny Hornets, or, It Didn’t Have to Come to This, which closed September 8, billed itself as a musical folkloric spectacle. It’s an apt description and there is a fitting and undeniable charm to the world Normandy Raven Sherwood and her production team have created. Sherwood and set designer Yung Oh Le Page transformed Secret Project Robot’s sculpture garden in Bushwick into a village named Didn’t Have to Come to This. The audience is on a special and rare tour of the village and its peculiar residents led by an Ethnographer (played by Alexander Paris). We immediately enter their lives, drink their booze, smell their cooking. Aesthetically, Tiny Hornets lives in the neighborhood of a surrealist depiction of an early twentieth-century carnival—somewhere in between a sober version of Burning Man and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue—but is rooted in a specificity that keeps the artifice from collapsing into self-satisfied and impenetrable whimsy.
The primary mode of expression for the villagers is song, and the music composed by Craig Flanagin and performed by The Drunkard’s Wife fits neatly into the show’s aesthetic. Most the songs start out as folk tunes in the vein of old, weird Americana and then occasionally veer into post-punk territory. Lyrically, the songs are not far removed from fanciful language that the villagers primarily speak in, and they are often sung with an earnestness usually found in the voices of schoolchildren. It’s a lovely and often hilarious effect – one that only works in the context of the play, speaking volumes to just how well-built and self-contained Sherwood has fashioned the world of Tiny Hornets.
Among the villagers is young Essie (played wonderfully by Admiral Grey), the daughter of a village shoe-tack maker. We learn that Essie’s mother long-ago suffered a fate at the hands of the beasts that occupy the adjacent woods. While many of the villagers are in denial of the beasts or generally suspicious of her, Essie is preternaturally called to the woods outside of It Didn’t Have to Come to This. Grey is able to simultaneously project both naiveté and a sense of lassitude and unease with her lot in life, delivering a dynamic performance that gives Tiny Hornets its true center. It’s a shame, however, that the other villagers are not given the same breadth and complexity afforded Essie and that we spend far too much time away from her story.
The Ethnographer, our de facto guide to It Didn’t Have to Come to This, takes us on little adventures around the village in a semi-promenade style (the space and crowd size doesn’t allow for a ton of movement, so there’s a lot of awkward ninety-degree turns and neck craning as the actors move around the garden). A significant portion of the action in Tiny Hornets consists of the villagers doing or saying that we would consider odd and then the Ethnographer, via microphone, attempting to translate their actions back to the audience. When these exchanges work, they are amusing and help ease the audience into the more bizarre elements of the play, when they don’t—as is too often the case—they have the unintended effect of taking the sucking the air right out of the performance. Instead of truly living in the villager’s reality and getting to know its intricacies, we are consistently being pulled out and the energy built during the vignettes is rarely converted into true momentum.
At a certain point, we don’t need to be reminded that what we are seeing is strange, and though the Ethnographer is a scientist and our ‘guide,’ he doesn’t contribute much beyond his own bewilderment. I suppose that this is the point, that it’s all an elaborate commentary on the absurdity of certain ethnographic practices and the western world’s age-old habit of being alarmingly ignorant of other cultures while simultaneously fetishizing and commodifying them. The Ethnographer’s knowledge is surface-level and academic—he doesn’t know what gets the villagers up in the morning, or keeps them awake at night. In the end, he is as ignorant as the audience to the inner lives the villagers. It’s not a bad commentary on its own, but its satirical bite is lost in occasionally clumsy delivery and repetition.
What ultimately rescues Tiny Hornets is its more sinister undertones. The smell of cooking meat lingers over the whole venue—an effect that becomes increasingly creepy as we learn of the looming presence of what lies just beyond the village. After an intermission that includes a sampling of the aforementioned goods, the audience follows Essie’s journey into the woods where she encounters The Bone King (Kristine Haruna Lee). The woods are another successful design by Yung Oh Le Page and the chaos-fueled punk of The Bone Band and Lee’s vocals are as well performed as they are unsettling. It’s a visceral performance that provides the perfect counterpoint to the twee stylings of It Didn’t Have to Come to This.