The 'Surrealist Cabaret' Brings Whimsy And Magic To Nature’s Stage

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A performance of the "Surrealist Cabaret" in the town of Essex earlier this month (Sarah Ledbetter for WBUR)
A performance of the "Surrealist Cabaret" in the town of Essex earlier this month (Sarah Ledbetter for WBUR)

A masked woman in an apron and kerchief jumps up on a picnic table and addresses a crowd.

“I’m your grandmother, and I’m here to help you throughout this show,” she tells about 30 people who are gathered in a big, green field at Alprilla Farm in the North Shore town of Essex.

She holds a clipboard in one hand, a bell in the other.

“As you notice, we are not in a theater," she says. "So the first thing to know is that when I ring this bell it means we’re all going to move to the next thing and you’re going to have to follow my directions, OK?”

It is the opening night of the Royal Frog Ballet’s ninth-annual "Surrealist Cabaret." Our guide — Shea Witzo, in the role of the Granny — gives us some more instructions: Watch out for holes. Stick close together. But first — wait. We pause for a moment, unsure of where to look.

Then, 6-year-old Aiden Bairstow catches sight of something.

“Oh, I know what’s happening,” he says. “I see it right behind you.” We turn to see a band — fiddle, accordion and drums — approaching from across the field.

A performance of the "Surrealist Cabaret" in the town of Essex earlier this month (Sarah Ledbetter for WBUR)
A performance of the "Surrealist Cabaret" in the town of Essex earlier this month (Sarah Ledbetter for WBUR)

The farm, it turns out, has many secrets in store. No matter where we look, something strange and surprising is bound to appear: a tall, swaying monster on stilts, for instance, or the pair of scientists who inform us that we are part of their experiment. At one point, our guide delights us with a salty parody of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” The pieces are linked loosely around a theme, though we aren’t sure yet what it is.

“It’s an incredible show,” says Jaymie Zapata, who is seeing the "Surrealist Cabaret" for the fourth time. (The show comes to Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton on Oct. 14-16 and 21-23.)

“It’s just a nice way to sort of usher in a change of seasons," Zapata says. "Like, the spring is often rebirth, and fall -- I forget what the theme was last year -- but one year it was crossroads and crossing over. I’m excited to see what it is this year.”

The group tramps across muddy meadows and through patches of trees. As we walk, we encounter other vignettes. Some are quietly contemplative, like a poem or a song. Then there are the moments that speak to the "Surrealist Cabaret’s" name: the two-legged unicorn that materializes from the trees and flounces toward us, voguing self-consciously. And the cheerleaders, whose exuberant drumming and absurdist chants -- “Sunshine! Boxed Wine!” -- are quieted by the gentle peals of a set of wind chimes that a woman carries through the crowd.

(Sarah Ledbetter for WBUR)
(Sarah Ledbetter for WBUR)

“A lot of us are trying to make work that is like a gift, rather than a performance for [the audience],” says Sophie Wood, one of the founders of the "Surrealist Cabaret." The project started in 2007, when Wood and a group of artist friends decided to perform some of their works-in-progress at a farm in Amherst. They mounted the production in a big barn and served the audience dinner.

“It was a lot about finding a space to be vulnerable and show something you were working on, even if you weren’t ready to put it out as a full, finished work,” Wood says. The collaborative nature of the project helped them all feel a bit braver about showing their art.

The collective goes by the name the Royal Frog Ballet, and it has mounted weird and whimsical performances every year since its founding. Most shows end up selling out. The individual pieces in any performance are all connected by a central theme. The artists are given the theme to riff on, and the collaborative works as a team to link the pieces together. This fall, the theme is "hope and joy."

“And so, the pieces don't necessarily have to be hopeful or joyful, they just have to be inspired by what you think of when you're asked to think about hope and joy,” Wood says. “And I think some people feel anxious about the future, when they’re asked, you know, ‘What is it that you’re hoping for?’ ”

“It feels like an old tradition,” says Leah Sakala. She is huddled in the audience under a magnificent array of colored lanterns, which sway from long sticks thrust into the soft earth. Moments before, we had watched the actors assemble the tree as dusk fell on the farm.

“It feels like we're partaking in something, the kind of art that's been made for a very long time, but at the same time it manages to be very relevant,” Sakala says. “Like at the end when they assemble the tree, we just watched every branch come in. And I feel like it's rare that we take the time to just sit and watch something come together like that.”

For Lois Bairstow, who came with her 6- and 10-year-old sons, this year’s theme hit home.

“I think for me especially, being someone who is sometimes scared of the future, I think that this is just — just soaked in hope,” she says. “To come out at night and to see this unbelievably magical thing, especially in this season of a lot of magic going on, it’s wonderful.”

The crowd lingers under the lanterns long after the show has ended. The moon rises and our breath freezes in the air. Eventually, we disperse to our warm, well-lit homes -- but that sense of magic, and mystery, remains.

This article was originally published on October 14, 2016.

This segment aired on October 14, 2016.

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Amelia Mason Senior Arts & Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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