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Puppets and poetry: Infringers take on the Rust Belt blues

Costa 

Michele Costa, of theatreFiguren, in September, 2009. Photo by Sharon Cantillon / The Buffalo News.

At its heart, the Buffalo Infringement Festival is about pushing boundaries.

The proliferation of dance, theater, music and unclassifiable art provides an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone -- whether it’s the ubiquitous 4/4 meter in music, the familiar pirouettes and pliés of ballet or the comforting look of landscape painting. To be sure, there is no shortage of Infringement acts, performances and exhibitions that challenge long-held assumptions about what art should be.

Take Shapes of States (a.k.a. Geoffrey Peters), who performed a 15-minute set of “glitch poetry” earlier tonight on the back patio of SP@CE 224 aimed at exploring “the sugar coating that surrounds much art, music, and literature that has been flaking off causing the Buffalo streets to be due for some much needed sweeping.”

The piece, titled “Taste This Voice,” had Peters reading his poetry about the familiar fears assailing artists in the digital era, from being “a cog in the works” to “turning blindly into digits.” After he spoke each phrase into a mic, Peters would loop the last couple words of the phrase and modulate the pitch to produce strange sonic textures that seemed to emphasize the sense that his was just another voice crying out to be heard from the digital void.

This is typically fascinating Infringement stuff: The poetry itself wasn’t about to win any awards, but Peters’ method, by sheer virtue of its novelty and the way it points up the sincerity of Peters’ intentions, made the piece intriguing.

theatreFigüren's "The Edge of Here"

But, within the Infringement fold, there are also some glorious traditions. One of these is theatreFigüren, a highly stylized brand of puppet theater and mime conceived, crafted and performed by Michele Costa. Since the festival was founded in 2005, Costa has appeared at various events, appearing each year with a new show that deftly melds the arts of painting, puppetry, music and storytelling.

The first time I saw Costa, in 2007, she performed a wistful piece called “Concerto” in the sweltering back room of Rust Belt Books. It involved painted scrolls of paper, a strange octagonal box of unknown mysteries, and an endless procession of hand-crafted puppets whose faces, though static, seemed to magically adopt whatever emotion Costa intended at the moment. It was an experience of almost indescribable beauty, and one that has stuck with me since.

So it was with great anticipation that I showed up at the Crane Library earlier tonight to see Costa’s latest creation, a show called “The Edge of Here.” Costa describes the piece as “a puppetry love letter to the city of Here and its inhabitants.” The “city of Here,” of course, is Buffalo, a title borrowed from Mark Goldman’s book “City on the Edge.” In Costa’s mind, Buffalo, is a place of both unsettling decay and unknowable beauty. Her new piece is an attempt to get behind the supposed hopelessness of the pervading Buffalo mentality and to show the buried hope and hidden charm behind her characters’ bouts with boredom and neurosis.

Costa creates lonely little vignettes of darkness and hope, which usually begin in unsettling ways – an old woman sticking her head in an oven, for instance – before resolving themselves into moments of simple and transcendent beauty.

The show began with an elegant introduction, in which Costa introduced her foldable puppet stage, a wooden triptych painted with a colorful cityscape that she could wear around her neck while manipulating her various puppets and props.

Before long, we meet the first character, a nervous and jittery old man in orange golf pants resembling nothing so much as a miniaturized Christopher Walken. He struts and frets from one side of the stage to the other before eventually settling down in his armchair to read the newspaper. This brief moment of calm ends when he discovers an ad for something called “a personal escape suit” -- based on an actual classified ad Costa read in The Buffalo News. Frightened to death by the ad’s implications of impending nuclear, biological and chemical disasters, he sends away for the suit, a green space-age looking outfit which arrives promptly by mail.

Our neurotic hero dons the suit in a bit of convincing puppet trickery, and while inside, he watches life go by outside his window in the form of a painted scroll featuring Jehovah’s witnesses, visiting salesmen and fighting neighbors. After this goes on for a spell, he becomes overwhelmed by isolation, sheds the suit and sends away for a manual lawnmower from the same newspaper.

It sounds random, I know. But to see this neurotic creature step outside of his house and gleefully mow his lawn, and then ascend into the air as if flying, was a quiet thrill. You wanted to clap for him.

Other vignettes, featuring an tried old woman, a daring stilt-walker and a small dog, were equally compelling and each beg to be seen. Costa’s characters, like one the city they inhabit, are, as she says in her poetic epilogue, “crumblig but reaching upward.”

“The Edge of Here,” at its heart, points to the undiscovered beauty of the city, and the untold number of lonely dreamers who live here in obscurity. They live, as Costa tells us, “on streets that are mysterious, but too familiar for words.”

In the absence of words, Costa's puppetry will do just fine.

Costa performs “The Edge of Here” at Rust Belt Books (202 Allen St.) on Thursday at 5:30 and Friday at 6:45 and at the Crane Library (633 Elmwood Ave.) on Saturday at 4 p.m.

--Colin Dabkowski

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