Review: The Dragon of Polish Hill Ascends!

Recital
Recital
Published in
7 min readOct 7, 2020

Dave English and Will Schutze turn their puppet performance into a film.

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 2019–2020 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of The Dragon of Polish Hill by Dave English and Will Schutze, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger, NaTasha Thompson, and Ariel Xiu. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here. (Full disclosure: After the postponement of the original production of The Dragon of Polish Hill, Dave English and I collaborated on video piece advocating for the Carnegie Museum workers’ efforts to form a union. English also performed in my band Watererer’s release show video.)

By David Bernabo

In The Dragon of Polish Hill, puppeteers Dave English and Will Schutze reconstruct the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Polish Hill, fill it with characters, and offer viewers a fantastical story of half-remembered history, culture clashes, and unexpected friendships. Leaning into the limitations forced on theater performances during the COVID-19 pandemic, their intended puppet play is transformed into a film where multiple camera angles allow for a closer look at the beautifully-rendered puppets and their magically lifelike movements. The production team retain a rawness, a Pittsburgh-ness, if you will, to the film that matches the charmingly handmade look of the set designs. While the plotline is relatively linear and predictable, the work, like the neighborhood it reconstructs, is complex, pulling weighty topics like cancel culture, casual racism, gentrification, and commercial exploitation into its quick-witted, playful realm.

Willy James and Stanley Onion.

After video footage of Polish Hill morphs into a wonderfully fabricated set of church spires and detailed brick buildings designed by Leah Pecoraro-Eddy, we meet Stanley Onion. He is 115 years old, living in a retirement home. But he soon wanders off. Entering into Onion’s fragile mind, we slip back in time to 1964 and see Onion’s wife Sonia sick in bed. She reminds Onion to pick up meat at the store. Now Onion is in the butcher shop, only we are back in current day and the butcher shop is Kaos Coffee, a sly play on the real-life Kaibur Coffee in Polish Hill. Also, at the coffeehouse is Willy James, a semi-famous interdisciplinary artist being interviewed by a Pittsburgh City Paper reporter. Soon, Stanley Onion and Willy James are in a confrontation. The confused Onion begins peeing in the store and James somewhat inadvertently knocks him over. Word spreads that James knocked over an old man. The Pittsburgh City Paper cover story transforms from an artist interview into an expose, recounting James’s assault on Stanley Onion. James and his career are effectively “canceled.” On top of that, a court orders him to spend 90 days at Onion’s retirement home picking up their trash and “hold[ing] their little rat dogs.” Most of that action happens in the first 15 or so minutes. Then, as you might guess, Onion and James eventually work through their differences and become friends.

The Dragon of Polish Hill is quite plot heavy — I’m glossing over a lot in the previous paragraph including Onion’s supernatural origin story — but the creative team does a good job of keeping things lively and interesting. Willy James’s music videos frequently pop on the screen. They are filled with hard-edge cuts, references to A Clockwork Orange, and an aesthetic somewhere between punk, polka, and grunge. The videos and the music, composed by Will Simmons, parallel the plot — see the mid-show self-pity fest “I’m a victim of call out culture” video, the third act “do the right thing” video, and the closing duet celebrating the friendship between James and Onion.

Throughout the work, flashbacks ditch the carved puppets in favor of Geoffery Cormier’s gorgeous shadow puppets, a visual cue that alludes to memory as a flattened version of experience, a subjective slice of the objective totality of an event.

Kaibur Coffee owner Chris Laffoon makes a cameo, playing the fictional owner of Kaos Coffee. English and Schutze play live action butchers in one of the first flashback scenes, which in hindsight is incongruous with the paper cutout flashback scenes that follow.

And there are a few lovable, hilariously zany characters. The judge at James’s court hearing is a bird with an anti-art bent. Francine, voiced by Kirsten Ervin, is another resident at the retirement home. Her puppet is a deep-grooved head resting on a pair of shoes, and she is into lite S&M — “I used to tie him to the bed posts.”

Vic is Willy James’s agent. He is an iguana or lizard of some sort. He talks fast and has money on the mind. Vic’s greed inadvertently opens the door for Willy James’s redemption. As James gets to know Stanley Onion, coaxing stories out of his dementia-riddled head, James gets an idea for a new stage show depicting the life of Stanley Onion. Vic is onboard and thinks that it will be a financial success, something to revive James’s canceled career. Towards the end of the film, James has to choose between exploiting his new friend for a return to fame or respecting Onion’s life story.

Onion and Nurse Jackson.

The Dragon of Polish Hill provides few true heroes. Nurse Jackson (and her puppet-sized crocs) is certainly the moral center of the story. She takes care of the residents at the retirement home, and works double duty correcting Willy James’s white privilege and his tendency to play the victim. She also has to take the brunt of Onion’s casual racism and sexism. Institutionalized for the last 55 years, Stanley Onion’s views on race and gender are frozen in time. It’s not that his racist and sexist remarks weren’t racist and sexist back in the 1960s — they were — but those types of remarks were more widely accepted among his white peers.

Nurse Jackson, voiced by the excellent Asia Lae Bey, is also the source for much humor. Her explanation of Stanley Onion goes something like, “He is an onion man. That man is an onion. You can’t take his blood — you get onion juice.”

Stanley Onion remains mostly unchanged, still often unaware of what day it is, but Willy James does go through a transformation. Sure, in the closing scene, James centers himself in his eulogy for Onion, but at the very least, he has learned to be more tolerant and understanding of the circumstances of others. And in not commercializing Onion’s story, James did choose friendship over commerce.

As a panel, we were hard-pressed to find much that we didn’t like about The Dragon of Polish Hill. There was the whole dragon flashback that remained a little hazy in our minds a few days after viewing, but overall, it was easy to be swept away by the constantly moving plot, the excellent voice and puppeteering performances, the beautiful sets, and gleeful experimentation with form. There is added charm in grokking some of the Pittsburgh and Polish Hill references — and it was fun to see Pittsburgh City Paper editor Lisa Cunningham comment on the work in real-time during the virtual screening— but this kind of intergenerational story is always relevant, especially when you can connect aspects of the story to national trends, social movements, and pieces of our collective history.

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 jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com 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 Watererer, 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.

NaTasha Thompson is a director and playwright and North Carolina native. She has been creating theatrical work since 2007 and holds a B.A in Drama from UNC-Greensboro. Her dramatic work seeks to unveil and question social norms, encouraging audiences to see the world with different lenses. From writing and producing her own stories to assisting innovative directors, her approach to live performance is informed by a variety of experiences. She has assisted and worked with organizations such as The North Carolina Black Repertory Company, Found Space Theatre, Playmakers Repertory Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Theatre For a New Audience, Bull City Black Theatre Festival and Alumni Theatre Company.

Ariel Xiu is an artist whose works are meditations and performances on the multiplicity of human experience, the non-locatable, the interconnectivity of all things and their relationships — processed through the lens of an Asiatic lineage. She has performed in theatres including The New Hazlett and Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, DIY house venues, and art galleries (Living Gallery and Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, SPACE in Pittsburgh). She is a former resident at The Space Upstairs and scholar of the annual Pulse Laser Workshop hosted by the HoloCenter at Ohio State University.

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