To hear the story of Legbala is a River, we’re invited into a bright, round tent of white cloth, to sit with our feet bare in red sand. A woman moves among us to tell her story, and what we hear first is a question: “Is it ok for me to say,” she asks, “that I don’t miss him all the time?”
“He” is her husband, a doctor, who has left her and their two kids, for six weeks, to fight an Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Our protagonist, an engineer, experiences mixed feelings and a world of questioning. Legbala is a River, written and performed by Bess Welden, is this woman’s meditation, accompanied by live illustration and animated projections (by Leticia Plate) and an original score performed live (by Hans Indigo Spencer), and staged in an immersive installation (by Meg A. Anderson) at Mayo Street Arts, under the direction of Dan Burson.
As she details the woman’s thoughts, Welden ranges the full area of the circle, involving us in the story with her movements and her equally intimate vocal range. Above us, much of the tent is open; just three swathes of cloth meet at the center, and the widest of these acts as a screen for projections of water, webs, or skeletons. Spencer shifts the tone musically between wistful and minor on keyboards, upbeat on the ukulele, and urgent on drums; the lights (Michaela Denoncourt’s design) also change often — inside the tent, the light is now cool, now warm; from outside, white or bright red seeps inside. The entire design, collectively, helps conjure the frequent shifts in the protagonist’s psychic space.
Throughout Legbala, Welden masterfully changes up storytelling modes as well. We hear the protagonist’s conversations with her precocious kids, her Southern mother (all gamely, charmingly acted out by Welden), and on the phone with her husband (voiced by Christopher Holt). Her talks with him give us the affecting chance to watch her not speaking, to see a pause of her hands or a tightening of her jaws a measure of how much she is keeping under control. Other times, her movement drives home a sense of her terror, as during a mud-streaked catharsis scene in the rain (which perhaps runs a bit long). Especially arresting is when she ritualistically and with spooky resolve dresses herself in a hoodie, bandana mask, ski goggles, and latex gloves: an approximation of a doctor’s hazmat gear.
Another narrative thread involves a children’s story based on the African tale of Anansi, the wise trickster spider and his quest to the land of death. As the protagonist reads to her children, Letitia Plate draws simple drawings in black and white — of spider, river, the king of the dead — and it is gently mesmerizing to watch, the visual equivalent of a lullaby. And lest we worry of cultural appropriation in the use of this African folktale (Welden is white), consider that her protagonist is forthrightly an outsider to Africa, which she acknowledges knowing only at a distance. She is working through such universal questions about fear, death, and strength, that in her invocation of the Anansi story, she feels like a woman grateful to learn a new touchstone for an archetypal tale.
Welden’s production weaves us close into myriad threads and strengths, a tale of many webs. The result of Legbala’s many theatrical parts is a show that’s intimate and earnest, whimsical and acute, with a holistic sense of the scope and ingredients of storymaking.
Legbala is a River | Written and performed by Bess Welden; directed by Dan Burson | Through June 17 | Wed-Sat 7:30 pm | Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland | $16 adv, $22 door | http://www.besswelden.com/legbala-is-a-river
Read more Megan Grumbling at www.megangrumbling.com.
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