Secular Psalms, Shoe Bombs: Ralph Lee’s Grass Menagerie


Events in the Middle East have recently been beastly, but rarely so beastie as in Ralph Lee’s puppet play The Dancing Fox, performed by the Mettawee River Theatre Company. David Hunsaker’s script, availing itself of Jewish and Arab folk tradition, offers an Ark-load of snakes, lions, rabbits, fish, sheep, and even a few horrid humans. The five-member cast enacts these animals using dolls, stick puppets, and a series of Lee’s characteristically inventive masks.

On the Bishop’s Green of St. John the Divine, a petite clearing ringed by trees, the ensemble competes with the moths and fireflies. An appealingly mauve tent—looks as though the bedouins are fond of Rit dye—discloses a quintet of legends and fables. The titular fox shimmies his way through three of these stories. The fox is clever, sure, but not so sharp that he can’t be duped by a bunny or betrayed by a man. Until the final piece, which offers a lovely redemption, humans come off very ill. A sleepy lion intones, “They have a lot of bad habits, human beings.” Indeed, the people of these tales swindle, prevaricate, and upset an entire town with a pair of malodorous shoes. This footwear, which clogs a sewer and kills an old woman (shoeicide!), is eventually bombed to bits.

The script and performances prove adequate—and occasionally fine—but the lion’s share of the show’s delights stems from Lee’s creations. His props and puppets entreat the imagination to conjure an entire seascape from some streamers and a whole village from a few ingenious lanterns. They invite a state-of-the-art suspension system of disbelief. Is it sacrilege that in the shadow of a church, Lee’s idols are so divine?

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