Traveling Via Theater

Shadow puppets, beer and transformation are on display as part of 'Theatrum Orbis Terrarum'

It starts in Turkey.

A small group of theater pros are pooling their talents and training to create a unique theatrical road trip. Last weekend we were invited to partake in the latest installment of Theatre 3's creative efforts as they launched Theatrum Orbis Terraram, a series of shows currently in four parts, but which has no specific endpoint. This is, after all, theater of the world, and that means if the members of the group retain their commitment to their curious natures, their discoveries and a willingness to share them, the whole wide world can be our playground.

This "Family of Wandering Storytellers" has given us first a taste of Turkey, with music, storytelling with shadow puppets, belly dancing, singing and beer.

Beer? Yes. More on that later.

It began—if these sorts of things can actually be traced to a beginning—with the duo of Angela Horchem and Matt Walley, two talents schooled in physical theater, the use of masks and clown tradition. They share a belief that theater is a fun and effective way to create community. By drawing on ideas and practices from around the globe, they acknowledge and welcome various communities within Tucson—whether it is an ethnic group or the folks who love making their own beer—to join in a shared experience with those who may not even be aware these other communities exist.

"We've been thinking about this two, two and a half years," Walley said. "All of us are curious about the people and cultures of other countries, especially their use of ritual, masks, music, their stories and how they communicate them."

If they were curious, then others might be as well. So they began to experiment with the idea, which led to other ideas, and then wondering how this could all be most effectively shared within the conventions of their passions and skills. Musicologist Paul Amiel, who has frequently worked with the Rogue Theatre, as have Walley and Horchem, was interested in this concept as well. So the three talked and sang and experimented (and probably drank some beer, although I cannot say this for sure.) And, voila! The Ortelius siblings were born.

Swerf (Walley), Alulu (Horchem) and Iznik (Amiel) are making their way around the world, experiencing the cultural traditions of the various places they visit: "Traveling the world to gather/ The truth in the lies/ The music in the silence/ And drink the beer." Then they create an opportunity in which their discoveries can be shared, and they come alive through the unique vision and talents of the Ortelius clan.

The shows will be organized similarly, although the sibs like to call this organization "the order of the ritual." Over the next few months they will invite us to Ireland and Japan, and then to settle in for some Tucson tales, because Tucson seems to have a mystifying attraction for many of us. All these places have special associations with the troupe.

If last weekend's offering is an indication of what we can expect from the clan—and based on their past work, I think it's safe to say that we can—this is going to be a unique, creative, captivating and thoroughly entertaining tour.

The three are not so much characters as personas from the "old country." They speak with rather generic eastern European accents and seem to be from a nameless, timeless place. They are not really the show; they bring us the show. Their personalities allow them plenty of freedom as they assume various roles in the evening's activities.

This is really not theater in the traditional sense. Well, actually it is theater in the traditional sense, but not necessarily in the modern sense. Don't come expecting a totally scripted, locked-down play. Yet it is a play. It's an experience, one in which we all participate (and no, you don't have to get up onstage). And it is great fun.

Turkey was chosen for the first stop for several reasons, one of which was that Amiel is married to a Turkish woman and so is familiar with the culture.

A sizable portion of the evening was a delightful shadow puppet show. When we think of puppetry in our country, we usually think of children. But in other cultures, puppetry is a sophisticated art meant to appeal to adults. And the sibs have devised a creative way to tell a Turkish folk tale with shadow puppets. Although scripted, surprises do happen and the performers responded cleverly. And when Amiel, who was the narrator and supplied the musical accompaniment, recognized that the story was running a bit long, he goosed his puppeteer siblings good-naturedly. The imperfections were perfect.

Danielle van Dobben provided the dancing; Bruce Stanley, percussion; and Eric Schoon, viola accompaniment. And Evren Sonmez, Ameil's wife, sang a lovely Turkish song. Michael Martinez was instrumental in bringing the whole thing together.

And about the beer. Audience members are encouraged to purchase a brew representative of the country in the spotlight when they buy their tickets in the lobby. There's even a curator of beer, Rebecca Safford. (There are also nonalcoholic choices, and there is a suggestion of a maximum number of beers to be enjoyed.) The beer is what ties the ritual of the evening together. And it is a ritual, although it's an almost invisible one. Says Horchem: "We are beer brewers, and we used that process as a model for creating the ritual. The process of the evening is very similar to the steps of brewing beer. It's really about transformation. And the most fun part of brewing is when it's ready and you can share it with people."

So we gather, sipping our brews—as do Swerf, Alulu and Iznik—and we begin our journey, which is casual but purposeful, ordered yet spontaneous, lighthearted but profound. And thoroughly entertaining.