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Review: 'Elle' by Michele Costa

Michele Costa performs a preview of her show "Elle" in Merge restaurant. Photo by Mark Mulville / The Buffalo News.

Michele Costa, the gifted local puppeteer and playwright, has long been a pillar of the Buffalo Infringement Festival. Every year, Costa debuts a new production, for which she crafts her own collection of of puppets or masks and, typically, a long and meticulously painted scroll that she uses to tell her magical, melancholy and often haunting stories.

Her short pieces, which have considered everything from deep human lonliness to the pulsing streetscape of this Rust Belt city, have the look and feel of something from a distant age. That sense of beautiful anachronism is only amplified by her muscial selections, which always deepen the air of mystery she establishes with her singular combination of puppetry, painting and stylized movement.

This year, Costa is performing a short piece called "Elle," a tale about a half-girl, half-elephant who came into the world simply because she was wished into existence.

As patrons filed into the second-floor performance space in the Crane Library on Elmwood Avenue Monday night, they saw a minature circus tent propped up on the stage. Only when the show started did many of the audience members realize that Costa had been standing there in her elephant mask the entire time.

In Costa's poetic language, perfect for a children's storybook, we hear about a group of circus animals  -- in particular two adult elephants -- who wished so intensely for a child that she simply materialized. We learn more about the story from gorgeous Costa's scrolling visual narrative, a meticulous piece of illustration which she turns with a crank to reveal new scenes from the life of the young elephant-girl and her circus family,   

Costa's elephant head, the trunk and ears of of which she manipulated gracefully with seemingly invisible wires, is a surprisingly lifelike feat of design. And her movements, with which she wordlessly expresses everything from bashfulness to self-obsession, are extraordinarily fine-tuned.

What's perhaps most wonderful about Costa's performances, including this one, are the small moments of simple and unexpected beauty she inserts. At a certain point in "Elle," when the scroll reveals the story of the main character's painful departure from her family, Costa reaches up to the scroll and pulls out a long piece of tinsel from a tiny hole where the adult elephant's eye is painted, drawing gasps from the audience. When Costa plays with the apparent limits of the form -- a two-dimensional painting becomes a three-dimensional sculpture, as in another instance in which the scroll becomes a a very believable suitcase -- her work resonates even more profoundly.

"Elle," in its simplicity, depth of feeling and flawless execution may be Costa's most memorable production yet. Its final two performances are at 7 p.m. Friday in Rust Belt Books and 4 p.m. Saturday in the Crane Library. 

--Colin Dabkowski 




Art | Infringement Festival | Theater
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