While moviegoers pack theaters for summer blockbusters like Iron Man and Indiana Jones, it’s refreshing to find big crowds flocking to an entirely different spectacle, one celebrating the Victorian-era phenomenon of do-it-yourself “toy theater” kits. The cavernous St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO was packed on Saturday night for the eighth annual Toy Theater Festival, presented by Great Small Works, a company dedicated to coaxing big ideas out of tiny materials.
St. Ann’s has been divided into three theaters for the festival, and spectators shuttle between the spaces to take in the various short plays that comprise each night’s program. There are dozens of productions presented by over 100 artists; on Saturday I caught Program 1, featuring short shows by four different companies. Oskar Schlemmer’s Das Triadische Ballet is an eerie homage to the titular Bauhaus artist and his 15 year crusade to mount his visionary ballet – with costumes so heavy the dancers could hardly move. Staged with elegant paper cutouts to a haunting score played live on toy pianos, the piece somehow manages to enchant despite the dry subject matter.
Duncan, Part One, or The Boy with a Bird in his Heart, is an inventive tribute to frustrated longing, as embodied by the Post-Impressionist painter Duncan Grant. Artfully articulated with silhouettes, sublimely detailed interiors, and stick puppets, the evocative piece floats along on Charis Jones’s the hypnotically soft-spoken narration. Laura Heit’s piece, The Matchbox Shows, is just what the title implies: extraordinarily delicate and imaginative vignettes created out of matchboxes. Huddled over her little creations, which are simultaneously shown on a huge video screen behind her, Heit narrates her eclectic tales with a style that’s at times a bit too precious to stomach. But when her tone turns from cutesy to grimly personal – as in the seemingly true story of a childhood friend’s suicide – she deftly reveals the big emotions lurking within seemingly tiny details, because size is really only a matter of perspective.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the festival won’t cost you a dime – and it’s also to blame for why I missed the fourth show on the program, So Close and Yet – So Far. A large portion of the St. Ann’s lobby is turned over a crowded museum of toy theater stage sets. There’s so much delightfully detailed work to explore here that before I knew it I’d missed the start of last performance. But the festival continues through next weekend, so there’s still time for you to pick up where I left off.
Great Small Works' Eighth International Toy Theater Festival continues at St. Ann's Warehouse through May 31st. Tickets cost $20 for one program, $15 for each additional program.