Anyone worrying that the fizz is going out of the theater will find countervailing effervescence in “Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet,” a beguiling confection assembled with glue, hinges and joy by the bright crew of the Pointless Theatre Co.
The stage at Flashpoint in downtown Washington may be tiny, but the savvy stagecraft practiced by this inaccurately named troupe feels vast. Over the course of 65 minutes, director Matt Reckeweg leads eight actors and a crackerjack design team through an irresistible retelling of the famous fairy tale, set to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s music for the 1890 ballet.
This production cements the status of Pointless — founded by a group of University of Maryland graduates in the summer of 2009, when it debuted with a show at the Capital Fringe Festival — as one of the best young companies in the region. Along with groups such as Dog & Pony DC and Faction of Fools, Pointless is gaining a toehold in the increasingly crowded D.C. theater world with a style that feels completely, exuberantly its own.
The dancing corps is an intermingling of human and inanimate figures, with the wonderfully expressive puppets by Kyra Corradin and Genna Davidson being the far more graceful participants. Their arabesques and chasses look lighter than air — and well, okay, they get a lot of help from their flesh-and-blood cast mates, three of whom manipulate the legs, arms and head of the spellbound Princess, and three others the extremities of her handsome hero, the Prince, with the wake-’em-up lips.
Smartly and dexterously, Reckeweg and company make of their “Sleeping Beauty” an homage to, rather than a mere send-up of, classical ballet. The jetés of the human ensemble members are far from expert, and intentionally so. What we have in Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab is an affectionate suggestion of classical rigor, with nods to other ballet signatures: the beatific smiles, the fuzzy narratives, the postures that can seem almost comically erect.
The director and his choreographer, Olivia Reed, know well, too, the need for the approximation of balletic fluidity, so their staging is in constant motion. Three sets of dancers are often simultaneously performing separate vignettes on designer Patti Kalil’s compact set, with its magic-kingdom backdrop. Rabbits scurry in a forest; courtiers spin, carrying garlands of flowers; an evil fairy with retractable neck and crooked nose out of Tim Burton’s nightmares lurks in the corners.
The puppet manipulation owes a debt to the skills of Basil Twist and other boundary-pushing puppeteers, but Pointless also seems to be introducing its own variations in technique. When, for instance, the blond, square-jawed puppet Prince turns to gaze longingly upon the slumbering Princess, the heads of his three handlers swivel in that direction, too, their features melting sympathetically into permutations of rapture. The unison in emotionality lends an extra measure of satisfaction to the evening’s climactic moment, the kiss the Prince bestows on the Princess. Bathed in a gradually intensifying halo — the handiwork of lighting designer Jedidiah Roe — the three men manipulating the Prince approach the cradle in which three female puppeteers control the Princess. The moment of reawakening is as touchingly dramatized as in any prior experience you might have had with this oft-told tale.
Come to think of it, folks at major entertainment outlets might learn a thing or two about the locating of common theatrical ground for children and adults in this company’s zeal to communicate enchantment on a person-to-person scale. Corradin and Davidson’s puppets are a pivotal ingredient. The sculpted faces, frozen in repose with eyelids closed, reflect a benevolent side of this magic land (only the giant villain puppet has protruding bug eyes). Especially cleverly built is the soulful good fairy, a pint-size forest sprite with a tutu of twigs and graceful limbs made from loose wooden links, which allows them seemingly to float on air.
Frank Labovitz’s costumes are noteworthy, too. While the wardrobe of the human cast — Lee Gerstenhaber, Madeline Key, Devin Mahoney, Robert Christopher Manzo, Rachel Menyuk, David Lloyd Olson, Ruth Anne Watkins and Scott Whalen — is mostly white, the puppets wear outfits inspired by woodcuts and story books; the Princess, for instance, dances in a lovely dress of sequins and flowers, and even gets a tiny tiara.
The progress of this company, and that of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, a maniacally inspired band of Goucher College graduates headquartered in Baltimore, makes you wonder what other theatrical ideas are brewing on Mid-Atlantic campuses. One waits with open arms for work of distinction from the graduating student ranks of the myriad other schools in the region.
In the meantime, these Maryland kids are setting an impressive standard. Because, you see, everything on this Pointless evening is delightfully en pointe.
Conceived by Pointless Theatre Co., music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Directed by Matt Reckeweg. Choreography, Olivia Reed; puppets, Kyra Corradin and Genna Davidson; costumes, Frank Labovitz; fight direction, Lex Davis; lighting, Jedidiah Roe; sound, Roc Lee; sets, Patti Kalil. About 65 minutes. Tickets, $15-$25. Through May 3 at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Visit www.culturaldc.org.