Created, directed, and performed by Kyle Loven. Presented by Upintheair Theatre and Theatre Replacement as part of the rEvolver Festival. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, May 23. Continues until June 2
“To sit through the past is all that is asked.”
This small line of dialogue comes at the beginning of my dear Lewis. It’s simple and thoughtful, playful and mysterious, and a little ominous, and not just because the line is uttered in an exchange between two small puppets, an angel and a devil. Short rhymes are portentous, and this one act play is a mood from start to finish.
This is creator-director-performer Kyle Loven’s Vancouver debut (he recently moved here), but he’s been touring this show for many years. He won the innovation-in-puppetry award for my dear Lewis at the 2013 National Puppetry Festival, and it’s easy to understand why. Loven’s creativity is breathtaking, as is his precision and the intimacy of his craft. Everything happening on-stage is physically small—mostly hand-sized puppets, a marionette that is maybe the length of Loven’s forearm, a small shadow-puppet scene on rectangles of paper—but the emotional scope aims to fill up the room.
My dear Lewis follows a man, Lewis, looking back on his life, into all the shadows and forests of his mind. There’s nothing clear-cut about Lewis’s memories. They don’t unfold with a clear narrative, but rather in snippets and bursts, in letters and metaphors and seemingly unknowable code. We see Lewis as a boy with his dog Buster, a great dog who couldn’t figure out hide-and-seek but could rescue Lewis from drowning. There’s an epic fire that may or may not have been arson, that Lewis may or may not have set. There are letters from someone named B. who promises to always love him. There are several minutes of a video installation wherein we see a woman looking for Lewis, always missing him by mere seconds. Someone, maybe B., says, “We helped make a boy,” and Lewis is pacified. “We did good, Lewis, real good.”
Honestly, it’s hard to say what Lewis’s life really was, and maybe that is the point. Lewis, in retrospect, doesn’t have a lot of stable stretches of time he can access, but he does have these ultra-specific moments and loosely formed memories, all shadows and light living inside him. This is the ominous undercurrent of the show: is the Lewis looking back experiencing dementia or something like that? Has Lewis been mentally ill all his life and that’s why he can’t quite grasp his past?
What is certain is Loven’s fascinating skill with puppetry and mixed-media storytelling, and the DIY aesthetic he adheres to so charmingly and responsibly. There aren’t a lot of fancy materials at work here, and this kind of accessibility is thrilling to witness. He paints the inside of his cardboard boxes gold so they gleam when he opens them to reveal the new settings for his shadow-puppet shows, which are mostly just simple streams of paper. One forest scene is just thick, black felt drawings on a long piece of cardboard. The largest prop, a white stork with a wide wingspan, appears to be just a cloth, but it then morphs into the house setting that shows where Lewis began his life.
There’s so much to marvel at in Loven’s creation, but I wanted my dear Lewis’s narrative to resonate more deeply: it’s visually compelling, but we’re not connected enough to Lewis himself as a character. It’s a wonder of a show, a small, beautiful spectacle, but never a fully emotionally engaging one because we don’t have a stronger relationship with our protagonist.