1927, the theater company from London that blends music, theater, animation and video, returns to the Spoleto Festival with "Roots," playing through May 28 at the Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston.
Written by Suzanne Andrade and directed by Andrade and Esme Appleton, "Roots" is a collection of folk tales. Some have morals, some don’t. They feel familiar, and maybe you’ll recognize one or two. I felt I was hearing many for the first time. There’s the story of the Fat Cat who cannot stop eating; the tale of the king who put his wife through the ultimate test; the hilarious story of the husband and wife who fought over magic powers. None of the stories are long; in fact, a few are actually a bit too short to have any real impact. Though the brief story of the Luckless Man left me in stitches.
The stage is occupied by the show’s main attraction: a large projection screen. There are also two stations containing a plethora of instruments, traditional and out-there, that are played throughout the piece. All the music is live. The projection screen is there for the animations that the performers (Suzanne Andrade, Esme Appleton, David Insua-Cao and Francesca Simmons) interact with. The screen even has built-in compartments. Unlike previous multimedia shows such as "When It Rains" from the 2015 Spoleto Festival, "Roots" can portray its cast inside the animations.
For example, in the Fat Cat story, the faces of the cat and the devil belong to actors, while their bodies are animated. It’s a cool effect. The moments inside cartoons are few after the initial stories, but interactions with the animations continues throughout.
And what an eclectic set of animations. Paul Barritt, co-founder and co-artistic director of 1927, handles the animation here. He’s drawn influence from lots of different styles and eras to give each story its own feel. A projection of growing roots that plays while audiences are filing into the seats evokes early 20th century cartoons at cinema’s infancy, moving at what appears to be 12 frames per second. Other tales have traditional marionette trappings. There’s some Monty Python-esque animation thrown in, too, coupled with breathing performers dressed in costumes designed by Sarah Munro to match the animation style. The effect is striking.
Music, animation, narration, performance all comes together to forge a unique theatrical experience. While the show’s back half isn’t as impressive as the strong early stories, it’s a highly enjoyable experience.
Reviewer Michael Smallwood is an actor in Charleston.