Review: Porto Domi Finds A Home at the New Hazlett Theater

Enthusiastic performances and intriguing puppets bring Felicia Cooper’s vision to life



Photography by Renee Rosensteel.

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2018–2019 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Porto Domi by Felicia Cooper, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelists Maree ReMalia and Jason Baldinger. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.

By David Bernabo

In a slight pivot for the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series, children are the focus in puppeteer Felicia Cooper’s Porto Domi, a theatrical puppet performance for audiences of all ages that considers the concept and value of home. Inspired by a bus trip in which the driver’s daughter treated the bus as a surrogate living room, relaying stories about snails living in the luggage compartment, Cooper brings the inspiration to life, parading a cast of characters and puppet animals through a wonderfully-rendered bus. Porto Domi succeeds in communicating its message through enthusiastic performances and intriguing puppets.

Anna, played by Claire Marie Sabatine, seems to have charge of her father’s bus. She acts as greeter and inquisitor of the bus’s temporary tenants. As new riders enter the bus, Anna collects their stories and relates them to her own passion — animal facts. A glass collector reminds Anna of a bowerbird, which integrates built structures with brightly-colored objects in order to attract a mate. The life of a transient is compared to a hermit crab, moving from shell to shell as it grows in size. Lastly, an Amish rider is paralleled by a beaver, comparing the skill of barn-raising to dam-building. These three examples show a diverse range of homes, paralleling Anna’s own mobile home when traveling with her father.

The narrative moves along in a linear fashion, alternating between Anna’s interactions with bus riders and more fantastical scenes where animals come to life in the form of puppets. The shift from the real to the surreal is subtle, but effective. The performers often shake off their characters to join in group dances with the puppets. A passenger in the last row of the bus, songwriter Juliana Carr, takes to song, offering a more melodic form of narrative support. There is a peacefulness to the these transitions. There are no drastic lighting or mood shifts. The onstage movement remains realistic, economical, and clear with the performers’ bodies acting as an extension of the puppets.

In fact, many aspects of the performance are simple or efficient. The plot is linear, relying on the introduction of new puppets and characters to progress through a series of evenly-paced sections, each reinforcing the point that a home can be many different things to different people. The choreography is accessible and replicable by younger audiences. The songs are harmonically and dynamically consistent, very well-sung, and made for sing-a-long purposes. Throughout Porto Domi, there seems to be an intentional drive to limit tension. There is no real climax or problem for the characters to overcome. The point of the narrative is to acquire understanding and through understanding, expand one’s compassion for the situations of others. Lacking any of the all-consuming and very understandable pessimism that accompanies adulthood, Cooper’s work prizes childlike wonderment above pointed criticism of culture or snarky in-jokes for adults. The viewer gets a respite from the world and its problems. The only thing that could pass for greed in Porto Domi is the Anna’s obsessive accumulation of animal facts.

Throughout the performance, the cast adds clever details and nuances from the beaver puppet’s syncopated head bop when music plays to the beautiful lightbox scenes that appear periodically on the bus windows. The snail, conceived as a light purple fabric head, a tubed neck, and a spiral body, has a very keen awareness of local dining spots and a good grasp on the concept of organized sports.

There’s also an honesty in the execution of the piece. The audience can see the human presence in the operation of the puppets. Cooper’s hands are occasionally visible in the lightbox bus window images. The excellent cast of Jamie Agnello, Kalee George, John Michnya, and Sabatine are visible when manipulating the puppets, allowing transparency into the mechanics of how the bowerbird’s wings move or how the hermit crab (which kind of looks like a fried prawn) bounces.

Acting for children can come off as patronizing or overdone, but the cast’s enthusiastic devotion to their craft avoids artificial cheeriness and assumes intelligence in their audience. The concept of home is far from simple, but by pointing to the range of ways that people can experience home, Porto Domi provides a foundation for younger and older audiences to consider the plight of others and open themselves up to compassion, understanding, and tolerance.

Panelist Bios:

Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

Maree ReMalia is a choreographer, performer, and teacher. Born in South Korea, and raised in the Midwest, her work celebrates diversity by opening possibilities for who dancers are, what they look like, how they move, and how they train. merrygogo is her platform for creating project-based performance works with communities of shifting collaborators. Through her choreography and teaching, she draws from improvisational methods across disciplines and the Gaga movement language to build community and make space for people to make new discoveries in playful and inquisitive ways.