By Shannon Friday
Confessions of a Secret Hoarder needs a director. There’s a lot of design going on: creepy-cool puppets; a pretty, shadow-filled lighting design; a charming original piano score with complex vocal harmonies. All the parts are pretty neat, but there’s no overarching concept, target audience (it’s for kids, I think?), or even a coherent plot. The result is a disjointed but very pretty and aesthetically, well, cool show.
Confessions of a Secret Hoarder is full of beautiful design. Darryl Ng’s junk-draped set plays against steeply angled, shadow-filled lighting. The result is creepy-cool: it evokes Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic books and Coraline: dark and vaguely threatening, but also full of mysterious allure and charm. And the decision to use puppets lets Ng and his construction team lean into character design. The construction is super-clever, taking garbage and transforming it into all sorts of creatures, from wizened villagers to a ginormous dragon head. Many puppets feel like they are disintegrating in front of me; their detailed heads melting into tattered, tentacle-like robes or skirts, adding to the crumbling menace of the world.
While the puppets would look cool hanging on the wall of an art gallery, as puppets they fail pretty hard. The operating mechanics are poorly designed, consistently excluding key functions or drawing more attention to the puppeteer’s hand than the puppet. There’s no consistency: some puppets with lots of lines or singing have mouths that move, while others have rigid faces and necks; some puppets have legs that require them to walk on the ground, while others fade into those great tentacles and sweep and float across the stage. I find it confusing, not sure how these puppets are meant to show characters in action. And I just don’t know where to look, at the puppet or performer.
The often clumsy puppeteering reinforces this confusion. Most of the actors look incredibly uncomfortable with operating the puppets, holding them awkwardly or leaving them hanging deadly in front of their body as they sing, with weak arm gestures, or are turned back toward the audience; the actor blocking the design.
Joel Rudolph’s songs are pretty hit-and-miss, but that’s mostly due to a lack of consistent dramatic tone for them to support. Taken separately, they are often stylish and clever, subverting expected conventions of children's theatre. An early song is a fun twist on the “Happy Village” song, with unhappy inhabitants of Garbageland haranguing the heroine in 4 part harmony. And the cast have the chops to handle the musical demands. Hannah Pohl, who plays Lillian, has a gorgeous ability to move from full-bodied musical theatre singing to speaking and back again, like a Disney Renaissance princess. Yasmine Golding and Nino Raphael keep things tight with their exquisitely balanced chorus work, moving from cooing to belting and back again.
The songs’ lyrics wind up having to carry the action thanks to the meandering plot and super-clumsy dialogue. When there’s something complex musically going on, like the unhappy village song with its layers of music and words, it works. As the villagers plea for help, Lillian, the heroine, sings that she can’t wait to “be free”, neatly establishing dramatic conflict. And when it is emotionally laden, like the Queen’s lullaby, the simplicity lets the music settle; there’s something infinitely charming about hearing someone sing, “I love you” with simple sincerity. But when trying to reveal character or carry plot action or change, it falls completely flat, such as when Lillian sings, in a moment played as straight-faced tragic insight, that “I must clean my room.”
Confessions of a Secret Hoarder needs some development, like it’s still in the devising process, and so the audience experience isn’t there yet. As a MFA final showpiece for Darryl Ng and Joel Rudolph, it argues for their talents as a designer and a composer, and shows the two are definitely willing to jump in and take new risks. But Confessions doesn’t really give me a sense of what either Ng or Rudolph want to say with their work. It feels like they’re doing a narrative show because, hey, that’s what theatre is, rather than because they have a deep yearning to tell this kind of story. I really wish I could see each leaning into their expertise more, even if it means not fitting into a neat conventional theatre box. As a result, all their great ideas and hard work get obscured, sometimes even squandered, by their lack of focus.
Confessions of a Secret Hoarder was part of the "Summer of 77" MFA showcase. It was performed at 5PM from January 30 to 1 February 2018.