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Beate Hein Bennett

A long, long time ago… yesterday…

“Misdemeanor Dream”
A World Premiere

March 10 - March 27, 2022
Presented at LaMama, Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th Street, New York, NY 10003
Produced by Spiderwoman in association with Loose Change Productions, New York
in collaboration with Aanmataagzi Storymakers in Nipissing First Nation, Ontario, Canada
Thurs. – Sat. at 7 PM, Suns. at 2 PM, Tickets: www.lamama.org
Adults: $25 in advance, $30 day of performance
Students/Seniors: $20 in advance, $25 day of performance
First ten tickets to every performance for $10 (limit 2 p.p.)
Proof of vaccination + identification, mask required.
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett March 11, 2022

Center: Gloria Miguel and ensemble.
Photo by Lou Montesano.

Theater is about stories—stories told, enacted, sung, danced, rendered visually in settings. Human lives are woven into stories in which the past is made present. Story telling is a human activity as old as language where experience, memory, emotion, and, above all, imagination are shaped into a communicable form of expression. Stories are the stuff that bond families, communities, even nations. Over time some attain the status of myth by which the existence of the universe, our planet earth, a tribe, or a nation is justified. The boundary between myth and history is sometimes as blurred as the boundary between tradition and social conventions.

Spiderwoman Theater is the legendary Downtown (New York) feminist-indigenous theater ensemble that has for almost fifty years explored Native American life stories through its story-weaving technique. It incorporates all the arts in a colorful exuberant style while weaving contemporary experiences of indigenous life in the Americas with traditional stories that have deep significance in the cultural and spiritual traditions of Native Americans common to many tribes. Organized and led by the Brooklyn born and raised sister team of Muriel and Gloria Miguel (the third sister Lisa passed away in 2013) of Kuna and Rappahanock descent, they chose to name their theater “Spiderwoman” after the mythical earth-mother figure of the Spider Woman/Spider Grandmother common to the origin myths of many Native tribes throughout North America, ranging from the Southwest (Hopi, Navajo) to the Northeast (Ojibwa), and many others in the US and Canada.

The Spider Woman is the creative connective force between the spirit world and humans, between the four levels of the world (air, water, earth, and sky), between the animal, human, mineral, and plant life, between light and darkness, between the stars and the underworld, between the dead and the yet to be born. Many stories have been created around this figure and the tree where she first discovered her ability to bring forth the threads and her strength to weave them into a cohesive web. She creates the web that holds all things together.

L to R: Henu Josephine Tarrant, Imelda Villalon, Matt C. Cross, Gloria Miguel. Photo by Lou Montesano.

“Misdemeanor Dream” interweaves many of these elements visually and through a combination of languages, English, French, and various indigenous tongues. The presiding figure is Nisgwamala, 95 year old Gloria Miguel, her white hair interwoven with silver streamers, dressed in silver leggings and a black dress adorned with silver stars and soft bells on the sleeves that tinkle when she moves her arms. She resides on stage like a Spider Grandmother, very much involved in the proceedings, sometimes from the side, sometimes from the center in front of a large red tree that is decorated with colorful large textile leaves that shape-shift under different lighting. Long vertical panels hung towards the back function as projection surfaces for huge videos of speaking and dancing characters from “other realms”. Stage left a tunnel opens towards the audience from where fantastically feather and fur adorned fairies of “this realm” tumble out as out of a birth canal. (“Misdemeanor Dream” is inspired by the antics of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) These “fairies” convey in song, dance, and spoken word the actors’ real life stories of their aspirations, their dreams, and their memories—some raucously funny, some full of pathos, some tragic. The story-weaving between the two realms-- represented by the interactions between the huge video figures and the live performers-- condenses their spiritual connections to the past into a fluid narrative present. A patchwork quilt, like the one hung behind Nisgwamala on stage left, is the best metaphor to characterize the structure of the performance.

Director Muriel Miguel has assembled an ensemble of lively performers from various tribes who also provided the story material. The performers “in this Realm”: Donna Couteau (Senior Bad Ass), Marjolaine McKenzie (Root aka Julia Roberts), Imelda Villalon (Pogi), Henu Josephine Tarrant (Sheri/Sheila T) and Matt C.Cross (Tiger Badger). On Video “in the Other Realms”: Sid Bobb (Quayatlun), Pennie Couchie (Lynx Woman), Animikiikwe Couchie-Waukey (Fru Fru), Lisa Cromarty (Piidwaa’aa giizhigo kwe), Sharon Day (Red Star Woman), Niigaanipines (Little People Story). Choreography by Pennie Couchie alternated between traditional and popular dancing. Composer Russell Wallace and Sound Design by Chaitanya Tamayo ranged from other-worldly sound-scapes to insertions of pop songs. The video design (RFP Media) drew on the excellent videography and editing by Kevin Love and the digital animation by Miriah Herndon. Lighting by Paige Seber did the rest of the color magic.

Ensemble. Photo by Richard Termine.

The story tellers weaving various native tongues—Ojibwe, Ilocano, Innu, Anishnaabe—into their tales give one a strong sense of being the stranger; this produces in the audience the effect of alienation, commonly felt by those who are deemed minor or are “invisible” within a dominant/domineering culture. For me, the most striking experience of “feeling left out” came towards the end when, on video, Niigaanipines, a dignified elder was telling us in a tone of simple sincerity the “Little People Story”—in his native tongue. The performance is really a pageant that provides a glimpse into the rich tapestry of Native American life, without any of the stereotypes that have skewed the common perceptions about “American Indians” fed by innumerable Westerns and novels.


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