I went to The Tank for a show that wasn’t playing until the next night; I’d gotten the dates mixed up. So, since I’d made the trip, I asked if there was anything else playing in the theater. That’s how I wound up watching what looked like a children’s show told with finger puppets, worn by an oddly distracted performer who seemed to have carpal tunnel syndrome. Her hands would shake uncontrollably, she’d take off the puppets, and retreat to a basin of water in which she placed her arms to relax them. What, I thought, have I gotten myself into?
It took longer than it should have for me to realize that “The Jester and the Dragon” was a carefully constructed play, scripted by Philip Santos Schaffer, that existed on two levels. It offered a glimpse into the life of an aging, arthritic artist, Mary the storyteller and puppeteer, giving her final performance. Una Clancy portrayed Mary so persuasively that she had me mistaking the performer for the character she was playing.
And the tale Mary tells, while initially promising no surprises – there is a little thumb prince and a little thumb princess – ends with a funny and charming negotiation that the (spoiler alert) widowed princess conducts with the dragon to convince him not to eat her.
The two strands of the play together provoked a contemplation of everything from aging and artistry to the destructive power of loneliness and the healing power of laughter. The ending is lovely on one level, and sad on the other. If “The Jester and the Dragon” remained strange to me, like any good folktale it came with a moral; actually, several morals. One was: Critics too addlebrained to show up on the right evening shouldn’t be so quick to judgment.
“The Jester and the Dragon” is only running through February 14, but it is the first of five plays in the Walk Up Arts theater company’s “Small Plays for Giants” series, which are scheduled monthly through July, 2018 — two at The Tank, and two “touring through audience bathrooms” or “touring through audience closets.” (So, yes, weird.)