"Journeys Through Imaginary Landscapes," the November offering at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre, is a marvelous piece of dance-drama brimming with gorgeous, stylized movements, words and bodies gracefully entwining in a kind of verbal tai chi, a Christmas window celebrating culture instead of fashion.
The Performers' Ensemble of Minneapolis has created a gem out of two highly ritualized Eastern traditions: haiku poetry and Japanese prints. Both rely on pure structural economy and a blend of detail and suggestion that challenges a listener or a watcher to delve beyond surfaces. From its initial frozen tableau of villagers awakening and embarking on their journey, through a dozen vivid scenarios and encounters leading to day's end, this play is a feast for the ears, and perhaps even more so, for the eyes. It's like having a book of rich Japanese prints suddenly spring to life in your hands, living history and art.
The ensemble, five handsome and wonderfully elastic actors and actresses who have assimilated the emotion as well as the discipline of Eastern culture, creates disparate life rhythms and rich environments from a surprisingly spare collection of props. Five large straw tatami mats are moved around to create walls and roofs for houses, containment walls for a rice paddy, the frame of a stage, boats, village gates; a length of silk is at once a cloud, a waterfall, the night, the wind; meditation pillows are drums, rocks across a stream, produce in the market, bundles of clothing.
In everything there is grace and quietude, an ease of movement spelled by words mostly spoken ("In the rice paddy/only the song of the woman/is free of mud") and sometimes sung in near-madrigal fashion. There is also a wealth of illusion: The ensemble members are first-rate mimes and mimics, at one point stepping out on top of a hill whose bottom just simply isn't there, and elsewhere evoking the patter of rain or the quirky sounds and movement of sparrows, herons and crickets. Most of all, there is a day-in-the-life flow here: the ritual of awakening, the rigors of field work, the exuberant humor of courtship rituals, the braggadocio of samurai-style combat, the crazed bustle of an auction in the marketplace, and so much more.
Aided by empathetic lighting (handled by Arthur Nordlei), the ensemble is eloquent in its slow-motion constraints. "Journeys" develops in its own time and with its own self-less balance of sound and movement. The disciplined cast -- Susan Galbraith, Stephen Benson, Kim Burda, Tom Foley and Brian Cross -- is terrific, each member making a strong individual impression but, more important, working from a warm collective heart.
"Journeys Through Imaginary Landscapes" is too good to be just for children (in fact, too young an audience may become restless at the play's deliberate pace). But adults will find in it a quietly stunning, inspiring piece of theater that straddles cultures in a winning way.
At Discovery Theatre, Arts and Industries Building, through Nov. 28; Wednesdays through Fridays at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. For information, call 357-1500. 'The Invisible People'
No child's imagination is complete without invisible friends, and even after that stage is outgrown, they provide a valuable reference point for adults and children. In William Lavender's "The Invisible People," at Glen Echo's Adventure Theatre, a still-believing young girl succinctly explains the attraction: "Real people are sometimes just pretend friends; pretend people are always real friends."
Lavender's musical is full of innocence slightly tempered by the realities of growing up and losing, or having to put behind, such friends as the jowly, jolly Mr. Glopp (Hugh Pettigrew) and the lanky, loose-jointed Nubbins (Dean Burgi). Cindy (well-played by Rindi Lee Savitt, a petite, Suzanne Somers look-alike) is a lonely but trusting child perfectly at ease with the idea of visiting the Invisible Village, which is populated by a dozen happy, singing children ("we can be seen by none but children who dream") and General Grumpdump (Tony Guida) and his feckless companion Wince (Larry Rockwell), whose pirate costumes reinforce their "bad guise." The village is bustling with wee invisible folk who've been dumped by maturing minds ("children have a way of growing up and forgetting them," Glopp complains).
There is, of course, some minor drama involving mean old Grumpdump, some slapstick chicanery, and the losing-and-finding, the renewal at the heart of so many good children's stories. The sets are splendid and colorful, the songs sweet and accessible (and well-supported by pianist May-Lily Lee), the acting (under the direction of Sonya Lawson) well beyond exuberant amateurism. And there's both a sad and a happy ending, so that one can walk away with a salty tear running into the crook of a smile.
"The Invisible People" will be presented at Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo Park Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 21. For information, call 320-5331.