NEW YORK CITY: The fairy-tale title of the Talking Band’s new theatre piece sounds very Grimm—like it might refer to a handsome prince who’s fallen under a witch’s malicious spell. Think again.
Turns out that The Golden Toad—as you’ll learn in the fourth episode of the venerable performance ensemble’s epic new work, opening Jan. 23 at La MaMa ETC—is the name of a backroom karaoke bar in Brooklyn. It’s the place where all six characters in the play, which spans more than seven years, finally come together for a reckoning. With music.
“This show is about six characters in search of themselves, and they change radically over the course of the four episodes,” says Talking Band stalwart Paul Zimet, cofounder and leader (in tandem with Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard) of the experimental troupe since its founding in 1974. Maddow and Shepard will be part of the Golden Toad cast (as will some life-sized puppets), playing characters that include a gay couple with a teenage daughter and their less-than-predictable neighbors.
The show’s four parts, each set in a site-specific locale, have already been performed over the course of Toad’s two-year development. “Each setting,” Zimet notes, “has to do with a sense of places in flux.” From Part 1, staged in the backyard of a fading Brooklyn townhouse, the show proceeded on a tour bus to the New Jersey Meadowlands (where stops included the original Singer Sewing Machine factory and a disused asylum); a pop-up clothing store (originally situated in the Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street); and, finally, to a boisterous “puppet karaoke night” at the Golden Toad (actually a Brooklyn nightspot called the Branded Saloon), where the program featured songs by Maddow and composer Elizabeth Swados. Each of these sites, and what happened there, will be reimagined in different parts of the sprawling La MaMa Annex.
If it wasn’t Grimm-inspired, what was the show’s genesis? “In Talking Band’s performance lab, we were reading new translations of Dostoyevsky,” Zimet reports, “alongside critical commentary by Mikhail Bakhtin. He describes Dostoyevsky’s characters as ‘unfinished’—they’re evolving through the course of the novels—and he goes on to claim that this is impossible to do in theatre. I took that on as a challenge.”
So in The Golden Toad, both the characters and the worlds they inhabit do change, ”not only with time, but according to who’s viewing them,” Zimet contends, sounding postmodern and a little Grimm at the same time.