Of all the virtues taught by this classic Native American tale — bravery, humility, cooperation, respect for nature — the greatest might be patience. Three of the story’s four Abenaki adventurers learn that lesson the hard way: bound for home, carrying blessings from the great Gluskabe, they open their pouches too soon, with disastrous results. We get the message.
Four Wishes takes attention and time to appreciate. It takes slowing down in the midst of this frenetic Fringe lineup and really listening — “Get the gunk out of your ears!” barks the crusty old narrator with long grey braids — to a simple story, plainly told. The modest production asks our indulgence in other ways, as creator/solo performer Michael Gunst, working from a picture book by Joseph Bruchac, slogs through some awkward rhymes to reveal the four heroes’ various desires. Here’s a sample, in which a would-be hunter despairs of ever catching his prey: “They easily elude me/I always feel like they are rude to me.” Better to have stuck with Bruchac’s straightforward prose or to have shown us the men’s desires without words at all.
Gunst could make more of the tale’s spectacular elements. The main action set piece, a shadow play in which a whale threatens to capsize the companions’ canoe, is squeezed behind a semi-sheer panel the size of a bath towel. Conceptually and visually, the production seems earthbound by the book’s muted illustrations, and viewers who’ve seen a lot of contemporary puppetry are apt to find Gunst’s inventions and animation technique less than mind-blowing.
Still, the show’s conclusion offers eerie mask imagery, convincing sound effects (by Gary Grundei) and a deeply satisfying surprise. There’s a magical moment when the audience realizes that we, too, have gotten everything we might have wished for from Four Wishes, we just needed patience to recognize it.
Thursday’s opening began too late (9:30 p.m.) for most children to attend, and that’s a shame, because certain pieces just don’t play as well to a room of adults. But Gunst worked the small crowd courageously and got us talking back to the characters as they considered the risks of ignoring Gluskabe’s advice. Earlier curtain times for the rest of the Fringe run should bring in more families.
Bruchac’s book, by the way, is available at several library branches, and parents of younger children might want to read it with them before attending the performance. Afterward, the kids can talk about other stories they know that Four Wishes resembles, such as the legend of Aladdin’s lamp, the cautionary tale of King Midas and, perhaps most obvious, The Wizard of Oz. Maybe they’ll be inspired to mount their own puppet/mask theater extravaganzas based on familiar fables. Best lock up any fragile, valuable or dangerous items now, before they get turned into props.
Youngsters know this much about being human: We all love wishing. And we all hate waiting.
Performed at New Stage Collective through June 6. See performance dates and preview here.