She’s like the doting aunt you never had

Amy Danielson

 

Every January 6, Italian children rise from their beds in expectation of finding that La Befana had been in their homes during the night. Just as children in the United States anticipate discovering gifts from Santa Claus under the tree, the children of Italy look forward to uncovering a toy or a lump of coal in their stocking, depending on if they have been good or bad. This legend, which has begun to fade, is the inspiration for the current show at the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, which they perform every half dozen years or so, updating the legend for each performance.

The Heart of the Beast theater regularly draws both children (attached at the hands to their parents) and lone adults, and both seem to view the theater’s plays as meant for them. With La Befana, the theater’s current production, the children were usually the most vocal audience in the audience, calling out excitedly throughout the play. To my amusement, the eager young children in the row behind me, some murmuring and some speaking at normal volume, all asked, “Is that the child? Is that the child?” as each new puppet appeared on the stage.

Artistic director Sandy Speiler is responsible for the distinctive design of the show, at once simple an expressive. The backdrop of the stage is simple: traditional-style trees painted on fabric separated by a translucent black curtain. Fifteen-foot puppets with oversized, beatific faces represent the Gospel’s three kings. They swagger down the aisle and onto the stage, inviting the title character to join them in their search for a holy child. The title character is played by three puppets, ranging in size from miniature to larger than life, as well as being played by an actor wearing a cumbersome mask. In these incarnations, La Befana travels across the world (her imaginative means of travel include toy-sized versions of a submarine and a helicopter) and through the seasons.

The old woman meets a variety of unexpected characters along the route: a dog shares in La Befana’s pain, crying tiny bits of paper tears, while a little girl unselfishly gives her trumpet to La Befana when it may be all she owns. The old woman then passes this along to an old man, mourning the death of his grandchild, who blows a few cheery notes on the thingñthe first pleasure he has had since the accident that took the boy’s life.

This production is framed by the war in Afghanistan. A puppet of a young Afghan girl huddles in anticipation as the United States drops packages onto the ground. Are they bombs or food? Fleeing Afghanistan, La Befana arrives in the United States, where she is interrogated by an immigration official, labeled “other,” and told she will have no benefits and will “be watched.” She is then flooded by images of capitalism in the form of dancing placards reading “buy more” and “save more.” The political satire in this instance is a little too broad, particularly when compared to the scenes in Afghanistan, which are understated and rely entirely on moody, near-silent storytelling to make their point.

And many of these are good points. La Befana returns to Italy at the play’s end, watching as a couple celebrates the birth of a child. The family dances together with joy as La Befana tries to press a gift into their hands, but she is unseen by all except the oldest member of the family, a gnarled old woman. “All children are holy,” the woman advises La Befana. “Even you.” One supposes this to be true of the audience, even those who came by themselves, in their own cars.

 

La Befana plays through December 23 at the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, (512) 721-2535.