The publicity material for Spencer Lott’s Blossom – in which he “visualizes the surreal landscape between reality and memory through the beautiful unraveling of one man’s mind” – suggests a dreamy, perhaps somewhat experimental, artistic exploration. And it is all of those things, yet simultaneously filled with subtle, on point humor, profound realism, and highly entertaining action sequences. In many ways, it is also almost as much a “straight” play, as it is a puppet show, although it is without question the superbly crafted puppets and their delicate manipulation that lend this production its particular poignancy and beauty.
James Blossom, an elderly one-time Hollywood scene painter facing Alzheimer’s, is brought to life in a finely crafted variation on a bunraku style puppet, primarily manipulated and voiced by Rowan Magee. Two other – less detailed but still expressive – puppets represent Blossom’s fellow rest home residents, Maisey and Ronald. In addition to manipulating the three puppets, the performers take on roles as Blossom’s daughter Kathryn (Jamie Agnello), the art director of the rest home Kelly (Chelsea Fryer), the nurses, and miscellaneous other characters – including those featured in Blossom’s film-inspired retreats into fantasy adventures.
Such a combination of puppets and actors is a risky choice. Often the presence of an actor creates a dissonance that can show up the artificiality of both the puppet and the live performer, but Lott’s cast interact sensitively with their wooden partners, conveying the same level of subtlety required to manipulate the puppets in their work as actors. (A rare moment that draws attention to the difference of scale when Kathryn hands her father an outsize cup of Starbucks coffee is delightfully funny, rather than distracting.)
Of course, the combination of actor and puppet is here also a symbolic as well as an artistic choice. The most helpless characters—the residents whose minds are slipping away—are embodied by the puppets, while the responsibilities of their caretakers are both theatrically and literally expressed by the puppeteers who give them voice and motion, as well as meals, cups of tea, and tiny artist palettes. Puppets can be like lightning rods for empathy and their inherent vulnerability is especially moving in Blossom. The necessary collaboration of working with bunraku puppets (which typically require three puppeteers to animate the head and right arm, the left arm, and the feet) also carries through into the production as a whole, and while Rowan Magee especially shines as Blossom, this is truly a talented and dedicated ensemble cast.
Curiously, Lott’s writing is strongest when writing for the puppets. The more actor-heavy scenes, such as those between Kathryn and Kelly, are the only points where I felt some editing might be necessary. (The given running time of 60-70 minutes is an underestimation; the show runs closer to 90 at present.) If, however, those conversations momentarily cause the piece to drag, it is easily invigorated by the fantasy sequences in which Blossom imagines himself as the hero of the adventure films for which he painted the scenery. Indeed, the show opens with just such a fantasy and there is something especially satisfying about seeing cinematic SFX recreated by such low-tech devices as shadow puppets, hand-held flashlights, streamers, and confetti. Chris Gabriel’s sound design also deserves mention in completing the evocation of Hollywood drama. Although there is an element of parody here and elsewhere, Blossom’s love for his films is easily transmitted to the audience, and the humor contains more joy than satire.
Lott tackles a difficult subject with this project, one that despite its ubiquity in real life, is often clumsily or condescendingly handled in art. Blossom, however, never deprives its central character of individuality, even as the universality of age and loss is also apparent. There is a gentleness that imbues the entirety of this production to which this style of puppetry is especially suited. The closing scene’s bare simplicity is beautiful, profound, and moving.