Encore Michigan

Flint Rep’s ‘Riddle of the Trilobites’ takes audiences back in time…magically.

Review March 03, 2019 Bridgette Redman

FLINT, Mich.–Flint Repertory Theatre—either in their current form or as Flint Youth Theatre—has never shied away from challenging young audiences. The shows they choose and the way they produce them always show extreme respect for the intelligence, curiosity and interest of their young audiences.

Their latest musical, a world premiere that opened on March 1, is a perfect example of this. Riddle of the Trilobites is a show that takes its audience back 500 million years to the bottom of the sea when trilobites were the most successful life form.

The creators–Geo Decas O’Donnell, Jordan Seavey (book and lyrics) and Nicholas Williams (music, lyrics and musical direction)–don’t hesitate to dive headfirst into science and write songs using such terms as “Panthalassa,” “proetida,” and “Isothelus rex.”

Lee Sunday Evans directs an ensemble of six actors and a boatload of technical artists to create this underwater musical that features fantastical creatures and flexible puppets on a seascape of ever-changing lights (Eric Southern), sound (Deb O) and wonder.

We first meet the three elders who are simultaneously embracing the constant change of the ocean floor and alarmed by the appearance of new creatures that they know herald the end of their own kind. They are armed with prophecies and weighed down by the loss of loved ones who have tried to solve the riddle that might be the key to escaping mass extinction.

The story then moves to the molting festival where two young trilobites are introduced, both about to undergo their first molting, a concept which is explained to the audiences with a surprisingly catchy tune, “The Molting Song,” where they sing about losing their outsides so that their insides can become their new outsides.

While the elders are in full costumes with large, constructed masks that cover their whole head, the two young trilobites are puppets. The show’s hero and protagonist Aphra is created by Sifiso Mabena and her side-kick and best friend Judomiah is created by Richard Saudek.

Both have a beautiful chemistry together and engage the young audience with their curiosity, constant movement and childlike approach to their life—sometimes filled with wonder, sometimes brimming with rebelliousness and sometimes a mix of eagerness and fear.

Mabena in particular captures the vulnerability of someone who isn’t quite ready for the tasks that she must do. She’s the archetypical reluctant heroine who tries to resist the heroic tasks she must do only to prove that she was the only right one, the proper “chosen one” to perform the task set for her. Mabena imbues Aphra with a sorrowfulness that comes from the loss of her parents and a determination to survive.

Saudek plays Judomiah as the humorous side-kick with delightful comic timing that brings many laughs to a show that is ultimately about loss and having to leave home. Like Astra, he has experienced loss—one of his two dads died on the same expedition that Astra’s parents did. Together, they make a wonderful team in a show that provides many technical challenges for its actors.

The remaining members of the cast play multiple roles, quickly switching out of large and impressive costumes and picking up complex puppets to play the roles of various inhabitants of the pre-historic ocean—Panthalassa (a super ocean that occupied 70 percent of the ocean’s surface, surrounding the super-continent Pangaea during the Paleozoic-Mesozoic era). It’s an ensemble that is multi-talented—physically, emotionally and musically.

Each brings something special to the stage in creating fully developed and complex characters whether it is Philip Taratula’s very shy and not very eloquent Hai, a new creature in the sea that swims rather than crawls along the ocean floor, or Julia Rose Duray’s 5-eyed Calliope, a gossipy, good-natured creature who knows everyone there is to know.

Puppets have come a long way from the simple cloth creatures that puppeteers would stick their arms into and pop up onto a miniature proscenium stage. The puppets in Riddle of the Trilobites follow in the more modern tradition of “The Lion King” and “War Horse” as they are created on a frame and given the ability to move in complex ways, even performing their own choreography. The incredible creations were designed and fabricated by Amanda Villalobos, who has created puppets for Broadway and off-Broadway shows.

As for how to manipulate these creations, Flint Rep worked with the executive producer and puppet consultants Jean Marie Keevins of Little Shadow Productions and had puppet direction by Pam Arciero, who is a principal puppeteer with Sesame Street, playing such characters as Grundgetta Grouch. She’s also been involved with an impressive resume of shows including “Blue’s Clues,” “Between the Lions,” “TV Funhouse” and “Allegra’s Window.”

Such expertise is clear in the performance of this show. It’s a spectacle, but not one that ever overpowers the main story and the emotional arc of the tale. Director Evans ensures that amidst all the technical demands of a show that aims high, the characters and themes are always at the forefront.

With characters unfamiliar to most of its audience, and a place and time few children know outside of dusty textbooks, Evans engages them in a scientifically-inspired story that is told by an excellent cast (five of the six are Equity actors) with moody and entertaining music performed by the cast and a live pit orchestra.

“Riddle of the Trilobites” is a new show, and Flint Rep launches it with beauty, respect, and commitment.

Click here for show days, times and details.

Week of 9/16/2019

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