Without men like John, how would women sing the blues? Though Rose loves John, a loutish downtown filmmaker, he abuses and abandons her. Still, she returns to him, her eyes pleading, her lips eager, her nose wet.
You see, Rose, the heroine of Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura at La MaMa, is a dog. Which is how John treats her. In this “mixed-media pop-opera,” a co-production with St. Ann’s Warehouse, she recounts her debilitating passion for John and the havoc it wreaks on her canine life.
Designed by puppet-maker Julie Archer, our shaggy protagonist seems little more than a heap of burlap sacking and old socks, but in the skillful hands of bunraku puppeteers and the honey-soaked voice of Bernardine Mitchell, Rose acquires full and captivating life. When she and John dance, you feel her delight. When he deserts her, her anguish pervades the theater. In the throes of heartbreak, she and the chorus bewail their fate: “We sisters/We bitches/We prisoners of love.”
No mere puppy love, Rose’s passion for John plays out in frankly and unnervingly sexual terms — interspecies puppet fellatio included. Their doomed romance, spoken in blank verse and sung via Lincoln Schleifer’s jazz and r&b score, takes her to Hollywood, drives her to despair, pushes her into the arms of a lesbian rabbit, and thrusts her on to a bus bound for the Institute of the Science of Soul, a rehab center run by and for animals in Cheesequake, New Jersey.
As its subtitle suggests, Divina, the first section of a planned trilogy, is too long and often too indulgent — John looks an awful lot like Breuer; the numerous Dante references get us nowhere. To call the recursive structure episodic is to give it almost too much credit. It hardly seems an accident that Rose quotes Marshall McLuhan’s “Art is anything you can get away with.” Breuer has long intuited and exemplified that tenet.
A downtown bricoleur, Breuer creates assemblages of influences and impulses. At first pass, Divina‘s collage — African-American music, Japanese puppetry, East Village Buddhism, medieval Italian lit — feels like a put-up job, a dare. And yet, Divina is made distinct by the force, drive, and antic joy with which Breuer crashes these elements together. He simply isn’t the kind of artist you can keep on a leash.