Aunt Sonia, who is gathering the whole clan for one last meal before she ends her life, looks different from when I last saw her. She once was just a huge head, with a mouth that seemed permanently open in shock. That was at the eighth edition of the La Mama Puppet Festival, back in 2018, when Federico Restrepo’s dance-theater piece, then called “The Final Lesson,” was a work in progress. Now, the newly named “Lunch With Sonia” launches the ninth edition of the festival, which opens tonight.
The works this year, developed over the course of the pandemic, seem to focus on the personal. (See photographs below of what’s coming up.)
“Lunch with Sonia” is inspired, as Restrepo explains in the program, by his actual Aunt Sonia Jaramillo, who decided to end her life in 2012 at the age of 72 before her debilitating illness would make her lose her senses. “Conversations about assisted dying,” Restrepo writes, referring to what’s more commonly called assisted suicide, “bring up controversial and emotionally fraught issues: morality, religion, politics, and faith.” But he would prefer to frame it, he says, within “the realm of personal experience.”
And so “Lunch with Sonia” is something of a party, with the Sonia puppet now an entire body, and much closer in size to a real woman in her 70s, although still a bit larger than life. The other puppets include a gaggle of grandchildren, and some luminous birds and butterflies, and a kind of metal skeleton with whom Restrepo in the flesh seems to wrestle — which resonates as a metaphor, since the puppet feels to be a version of himself.
“Lunch with Sonia” — three times longer than “The Final Lesson,” but still running under an hour — is filled with dancing, music, a voice over narrative in both Spanish and English. There is even a video of the meal being prepared (by both humans and that skeletal puppet. But what’s most remarkable about the show is something subtle. Sonia is surrounded by friends and family, and possibly home health aides, and it really looks as if they are caring for her – they touch her arm tenderly, they put on her fuzzy pink slippers for her, hey fit the plastic tubes into her nose that are presumably attached to an oxygen tank – but Restrepo and the five other members of his Loco7 company are also the puppeteers bringing her to life. That tender touch of the arm by a relative is actually a puppeteer moving the arm of this sculpture in a lifelike way.
“Lunch with Sonia” created and directed by Federico Restrepo and Denise Greber, will be presented through October 4th.
Other fully staged pieces in the festival:
“The Tall Keyaki Tree,” by Japanese-born New Yorker Watoku Ueno, is a shadow puppet show with live music, inspired by the novel Five Storied Pagoda written by Japanese novelist Koda Rohan. In the story, a skilled but unsuccessful carpenter has a strong spiritual bond with the Kayaki tree, also is able to builds a five-storied pagoda that withstands typhoons and earthquakes. (September 30 – October 3)
“When I Put on Your Glove,” created and performed by Sandglass Theater’s Shoshana Bass explores a daughter’s relationship to her father’s work through puppetry, dance, and spoken narrative — building upon a premise that puppets are containers of memory. (October 7 – 10)
In the wordless “Body Concert,” by Lone Wolf Tribe’s Kevin Augustine, oversized body limbs stripped of their skin (actually sculpted foam rubber puppets) become a moving sculpture of muscles, tendons and bone, animated in a rigorous choreography. (October 7-10)
“Dreaming,” by Torry Bend and Howard L. Craft, investigates the legacy of influential artist Winsor McCay and his famed comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland, which ran from 1905 to 1911 in The New York Herald. (October 14-17)