‘Inanna and the Huluppu Tree’ Not Just For Kids
By the fourth time the rows of fifth graders were exhorted to raise their voices, they were psyched. “Roooooaaaaaaarhhhh,” they again shouted. This time it worked. The community had spoken; bullying muscle-bound storm god Anzu was routed; the huluppu tree was liberated! You actually could leave the kids home and still thoroughly enjoy Inanna and the Huluppu Tree. Combining music, dance, aerial acrobatics and theater, the piece was created by Miami Theater Center (MTC)’s founder, Stephanie Ansin and artistic collaborator, Fernando Calzadilla. Based on ancient Sumerian myths, and featuring original music by Luciano Stazzone with choreography by Octavio Campos and aerial choreography by Lleigh Reynolds, it is presented at the MTC in Miami Shores. If yours are not among the busloads of South Florida schoolchildren lining up for weekday morning performances, bring them to a Saturday evening show. A well-produced study guide serves as a crib sheet to the unfamiliar names and the story line, while also giving props to Sumerian innovations: the wheel, writing, irrigation, arithmetic, the hover-craft. (Not really, but Inanna’s brother Utu’s nimble horseless chariot is slick.) Actually, the play’s strongest take-away lies in its moral messages, rather than historical lessons. These are first intoned by Great Grandmother Earth, Goddess Ninhursag (Shaneeka Harrell), in a resounding invocation to the play’s principals, her offspring. And more injunctions percolate up during the course of a drama that is delivered in a flowing sequence of short songs, performed with varying degrees of finesse; a wide-ranging musical backdrop; and dances created by Campos in an appealing diversity of fanciful styles — Middle Eastern-ish. As the play opens, three masked acolytes peer through a richly painted scrim and nervously ask, “Where is he? Where is he?” A restive crowd in the ancient city of Uruk impatiently awaits the coronation of a new king, Prince Gilgamesh (Rico Reid), son of the late king. But he is AWOL, and the play’s namesake character, Inanna (vivacious Diana Garle) — goddess of love, war, fertility, plus a few other divine attributes — is desperate. She has descended with haunting luminosity from heaven to crown Gilgamesh, and he is a no-show. What’s a goddess to do? Stage a diversion. Enter the huluppu tree. Uprooted and washed adrift in a river of the Urukians’ tears (grieving their king’s death), this sapling was rescued by Inanna, and, after a three-generation divine family dust-up, she plants it next to the temple to serve as a time-marker for the arrival of a new king. Thus, we have our diversion. But in drama, as in life, plans go awry. Replete with golden fruit and elegantly crafted in graceful wooden arcs and poles, the huluppu tree stands commandingly center stage. It grows thicker and denser before our eyes. An attractive nuisance, however, it soon hosts an unwelcome encampment of three lively new deities (the Sumerians had thousands of them), two of whom flap, roar, swoop and somersault in the air: Luckner Bruno’s thunder-cracking Anzu and acrobatic goddess of merriment and laughter, Siduri (Ana Mendez). They are lifted and propelled with skill and strength by unseen stagehands. (Tip of the hat to Cirque du Soleil, Crouching Tiger and MTC technical director, Ron Burns.) These oversize characters, each with a distinctive trick bag, neglect official duties to instead cavort, vie for position and devour the tasty huluppu fruit (a few of which they toss into the audience). Among these three freeloaders, the “pharmacist” Ningizzida, (Troy Davidson) eloquently exploits his jokester role and his signature props: a roulette wheel of maladies and herbal remedies and a multi-pocketed cloak of herbs. Inanna is stymied by these loafing lodgers, but then Prince Gilgamesh, the would-be king, returns from his pilgrimage and is put to the test: Can he turn out the freeloaders and restore order to the kingdom? Can Inanna keep him on track, avoiding violence? Will the audience repeatedly surge to his aid? (Does Superman wear a cape?) Some of the larger-than-life characters are effectively amped-up with computer-enhanced voices and, in the case of Anzu, by that glorious steroidal body armor, enormous wings and yellow-feathered legs. Subtleties of staging and delivery are interwoven amid broader styles of engagement with an indulgent and mostly guileless audience, reared on The Lion King, Star Wars and Xbox. The assembly eagerly embraces this combination of old and new stylings. In the music, sound design, choreography and deep, richly layered set, we inhabit an ambiguous milieu, but when did you last encounter “authentic” Sumerian music or dance? A combination of live percussion (musicians perched in a Mondrian-like scaffolding within a luminous cathedral of modulated blue light) and commissioned music evocative of such diverse sources as John Williams’ extra-terrestrial scores, early rap and Putamayo’s Arabic Groove carries us through tonal moods that complement the drama. Never outright campy, the playwrights, director, choreographer and actors give an occasional wink to avoid sanctimoniousness, even as they preach that old time religion. Confession one: My wife and I have no children. Confession two: We cheered with the best of them. You will too. May 1 – June 2, 2013 at the Miami Theater Center, 9806 N.E. 2nd Ave., Miami Shores; at 10:00 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 7:00 p.m. Saturdays; cost is $20; 305-751-9550; www.mtcmiami.org.