STORY by MARTY HUGHLEY
PHOTOGRAPHS by JOE CANTRELL
“We all know spring has a magic to it. The magic of beginnings. Chickweed, plum blossoms, blackberry shoots. And summer’s magic is full with ripe fruit, honey, and flower bouquets.
But endings have their magic, too. Winter squash on withered vines, apples just before the leaves fall. And nothing is ever really lost; nothing is ever really gone. Even if we forget, the land holds the memories for us, and everything returns to the soil.”
Just about dusk on one of the last evenings of summer, the actress Briana Ratterman sits on a rug in the 2509, a small rehearsal and performance studio in Northeast Portland’s Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood, reading from the script for an upcoming show. Flanking her are Birdie Amico and Keziah Peterson, a couple of young puppeteers from the company Kettlehead Studios.
Nearby, at a small table, sits the director Štĕpán Šimek, alongside Mia Webster, a stage manager. As Ratterman recites, the others interject from time to time with opinions and observations – how the lighting might enhance a given moment, what relationships or ideas need to be emphasized, how much exposition is needed…
“This is when the Balor puppet appears,” Amico says after a while. “So at this point the text can take a step back and people can focus on this glowering presence.”
There’s no glowering yet, though. A month away from the show’s opening, they’ve brought mostly small stand-in puppets for an evening that in any case is devoted to tightening the script, not rehearsing the action. Painstakingly, they move through the script, trying to reconcile variations among previous edits, politely arguing over details of narrative clarity, character arcs, and the rhythmic or emotional impacts of each line.
Economy is a watchword. “I feel like that’s too much dialogue,” Peterson objects at one point. “A puppet doesn’t need to say, ‘Yes.’ A puppet can nod.”
All the while, Esther Saulle, Šimek’s wife, sits quietly in a low-slung lounge chair at the back of the long room. And though she doesn’t say a word, she’s an essential part of the collaboration, too. For all the narrative and visual elements being discussed, the project began as an initiative by the early-music ensemble Musica Universalis, of which Saulle is a member.
The show Piercing the Veil: a Samhain Celebration, which opens Friday night (after a Thursday fundraiser performance) at Southeast Portland’s cozy 21ten Theatre, melds puppetry and poetry, acting and music, but also Celtic mythology, contemporary commentary and personal reflection into a multifaceted theatrical jewel.
“The thing with a devised piece is that, if it’s done well, it always creates a new form,” Šimek says. “People ask me, ‘What is it?’ And I’ll say it’s a puppet show, but it is also a solo show, but it is also a concert. It is all of it and none of it. So it is something new.“
Like everything new, however, it has its antecedents.
The creative relationships – and, to some degree, the stylistic template – for Piercing the Veil all came together previously in a magnificent show called Danse Macabre: The Testament of François Villon, which was staged a few times in 2020, in the Fertile Ground festival, and 2021, both at the 2509 (which is, essentially, Šimek’s basement) and at the Shoebox Theatre, the space now occupied by 21ten. Saulle suggested to her husband that they pursue an artistic project together, which he took as the opportunity to dramatize the life and work of Villon, a 15th-century French poet.
The star of that show was the French actor and Hand2Mouth Theatre resident artist Jean-Luc Boucherot, but Musica Universalis served as house band and onstage foil to his Villon, while he was shadowed by a figure that Šimek described as “the dark presence, the alter-ego, the angel of death.” Its enigmatically grinning skull mask and raven-like costume were created by Amico (who had been a student of Šimek’s at Lewis & Clark College, where Šimek has taught since 2001) and inhabited onstage by Ratterman.
Buoyed by the experience of performing their music in such an engaging context, Musica Universalis subsequently incorporated acting and poetry on a smaller scale in a couple of concerts thematically linked around traditions of Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
Woodwind player Laura Kuhlman liked the idea of continuing to coordinate their performances around times of celebration, Saulle recalled: “The idea of Halloween came up, but we didn’t want to do an ordinary Halloween story, so someone suggested Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival. We’d worked with Birdie on Danse Macabre, so we wanted to do more of that. And so that naturally led to thinking of Briana …”
“I’ve been told, and, reluctantly, I’ve come to believe, that there can’t be growth without at least some pain, and that wisdom often comes from darker places.”
“I’m kind of tired tonight, for some reason,” Šimek says.
“Me too,” seconds Ratterman.
“Should we just cancel rehearsal and all go home?,” Amico jokes.
“I’m afraid we have no other choice,” Šimek says, and they get to work.
It’s early October and they’ve had time to finesse the script; now the focus is on refining how it all moves – the nuances of both the broad blocking of the action and small gestures – how to make things clear and fluid. For the first hour, the musicians rehearse their parts upstairs in the living room, while downstairs Šimek has Ratterman, Amico and Peterson repeat parts of a tale about a tax-happy king called Bres who calls upon Balor, an evil-eyed monster, to help quell a rebellion.
Much of the show consists of a trio of tales drawn from Celtic myths, chosen by Peterson and Amico. But at the center of it, as part hostess, part priestess, part ringmaster, is Ratterman, who slides between roles as alternately an archetypal figure, Saint Brigid of Kildare, narrating the scenes of Ireland’s magical past; and a contemporary woman, Briana, musing on the eternal elements that link the ancient and the modern.
“We needed someone who was in the stories but could also narrate and move between them,” Peterson says. Ratterman took the folk tales and framed them in what Šimek calls “a kind of personal story about femininity and change, and also about land and nature.”
“I started thinking about menopause and moving through seasons and transformations,” Ratterman says. “Samhain seemed like a good time to comment on that.”
“Those are all wonderful, lofty ideas,” Šimek says, both to agree and to re-direct. “We also need to have moments of levity. We’re finding some moments, and I think we’ll find some more.
“Let’s take five minutes and then we’ll work it with the music.”
“Tonight marks the beginning of darkness … which is the place where all beginnings begin,” Ratterman intones after the break.
“Liminal music, liminal light,” Šimek whispers, describing the accompanying atmosphere. Much as candles and gourds and wicker baskets that dot the space, Ratterman’s voice – a warm, burnished alto with just a hint of graininess – fits the glowing autumnal mood. Toward the end of the first hour the musicians crept into the background, depositing their now-exotic instruments – viola de gamba, vielle, crumhorn, cimbalom, a giant contrabass recorder that looks like it might require a pipefitters union card to operate. When they play, for ears accustomed to modern instruments, even acoustic ones, the sound is like a switch from white sugar to fresh honey.
“Liminal” is a word that comes up a lot during these rehearsals. For starters, the liminal nature of autumn, as transition between summer’s fecundity and winter’s retreat, suffuses the script’s language. And, too, the show’s title refers to a kind of liminal space, the “veil” between our mortal world and the timeless “fey world” of fairies and spirits.
Alongside ideas about ancestry and loyalty, sacrifice and remembrance, the show’s main themes are enchantment and transformation, the passageways between realms. Characters not only move back and forth between the mortal and the magical, several have a sort of dual citizenship, being the products of human/fairy marriage, apparently not-uncommon instances of supernatural miscegenation.
The show itself has border crossings to manage – between the music, the puppetry and the Briana/Brigid character.
“Each of these worlds has to operate by its own rules,” Šimek notes. “So the challenge is how to keep them separate but at the same time how to penetrate from one into another. So, in the presentation of it, we’re dealing with the idea of transition, of that liminal space that Halloween is celebrating.”
“This season, the season of Samhain, I’m reminded that it’s OK to rest. We’ve worked hard. So, let’s celebrate! And then, let’s just rest a little bit, and enjoy the change of pace.”
A few days before the whole operation is transferred to the 21ten Theatre for tech rehearsals, Šimek and company are fitting the joints and polishing the surfaces. A focus now is integrating the musicians further as storytelling participants, as foils for the puppets and personalities in their own right.
“You are really mocking him, so if you can sort of play the music at him,” Šimek suggests, revisiting the tale of Bres, the hated king. “And then you guys are feeling really good. You’ve gotten rid of someone who’s been extorting you.”
The script calls for a confrontation, in which one of the musicians grabs the crown from the puppet-king and tosses it aside. Šimek zeroes in on the moment. “The loss of the kingdom comes here,” he says – stepping to the spot and sharply flinging a baseball cap off his head to the floor – “when the crown is lost. Like my brother, when I was born.”
(As an aside amid the laughter, he adds, “It’s really true; he never forgave me.”)
A moment later, he suggests a bit more dramatic underscoring. “I think we have the possibility of doing something really spectacular here.” He mumbles out an approximation of a percussive pattern for drum and gong to heighten “the tension, the intensity, like in a movie.
“Let’s take it from there, and then we are going to work the battle sequence.”
As the director, Šimek is in charge, but the collaborative spirit of the endeavor is clear, with Kuhlman chipping in on details from the musicians’ perspective, and Peterson showing a keen understanding of puppetry’s physical and conceptual grammar.
While enacting the tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill, a plucky warrior-child who takes on an evil flame-throwing fairy prince, Amico and Peterson clank into each other. Šimek calls out the beats and the movements: “Down, up, down, up, down up, down, side, up!”
“That’s exactly what I did,” Amico says, looking not chastened, just mildly puzzled.
“It has to be a fluid motion,” Peterson points out, demonstrating the pattern for their partner. “It can’t be just down-up as discrete actions; he’s not a pixelated bad-guy character.”
Such bumps in the road (or into each other) are minor, though.
“This is an amazing scene!,” Saulle observes.
“It’s crazy how many things we’re juggling at this point,” Peterson replies, smiling.
The great thing about juggling, though, is how everything eventually lands, the smooth transition to an ending – or at least to a rest. After all, we all know, or should know, that fall has a magic to it, too. The magic of endings, maybe. But mostly the magic of life and death growing closer together in their eternal dance. A time for piercing the veil.
“Perhaps there is comfort to be found…in a shadowland where all things are possible and all might be. Because life will change us, constantly. The transformations will never end. We are these glorious shapeshifting creatures, shedding skin after skin, until the time we finally arrive at just our bones.”
- Companies: Kettlehead Studios and Musica Universalis
- Where: 21ten Theatre, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland
- When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, Oct. 20-21 and 27-28; 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29
- Tickets: $25; available here