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A CurtainUp Review
The Adventures of Charcoal Boy

By Julia Furay

He's a magical stick who draws what he sees. ---Cathead

The Adventures of Charcoal Boy is a thoughtful, theatrical puppetry performance that is as stimulating to the ear as it is to the eye. The performance at HERE Arts Center, running in repertory with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, features a live band, a great deal of found art, expert puppetry, and a truly touching title character.

The charcoal boy is a tree branch that has been struck by lightning who wakes up charred and lost, having arrived alone in a strange new world, where colorful and weird characters abound. He discovers that the charcoal on his legs leaves a black mark behind him when he moves, just as a figure skater leaves loopy marks on the ice. There isn't much more to the plot than that. What makes it interesting, is just how inventive the creators are in staging the piece. And of course, how expertly the puppeteers express action and feeling.

Director Sarah Provost, designer Eric Novak, and composer Elyas Khan have run amok with their concept of animating industrial objects. The stage is boxed with a grid of gigantic paper rolls, metal beams and wooden boxes. The puppets themselves are created with coils, rods and wires. It's not just the design that's gritty and urban, either: Khan's music, performed live by his band, Nervous Cabaret, ranges from jazzy to rocking to downbeat. It all makes for a coherent, cohesive performance.

The thrills of Charcoal Boy are mostly visual and aural rather than emotional. There are some great humorous moments; for example, when Choppy and Reachy, a wiry pair of robots, try to act as television antennae. There's also plenty of powerful music along with the beautiful visual imagery. But the story is slight, and though Khan sings distinctively and passionately, it's not easy to hear his lyrics over the band. When we do, they're a little too kooky to explain much of what's going on (in one song the Charcoal Boy sings about treacle and caterpillars).

It's left to the brilliantly expressive puppeteers to bring us to the heart of the piece. And they do this beautifully. The Charcoal Boy is an inherently melancholy puppet, a pile of burned sticks with a long face. Not only do these five puppeteers bring his melancholy to life, but the other puppets (sleazy singer Cathead, dangerous Flamegirl), have their own personalities through their distinct movements as well as their appearance. It's a level of physical expression that can only be portrayed through puppetry, and it's extremely rewarding to see it done so well.

At eighty minutes Charcoal Boy, is a bit on the lengthy side for a piece so slight, but thanks to the expertise onstage, there's always something to engage us, whether it's the music, the design, or the puppetry.

Created by Elyas Khan, Eric Novak, and Sarah Provost
Directed by Sarah Provost
Musical score composed by Elyas Khan
Puppeteers: Lute Breuer, Ceili Clemens, Sam Hack, Kevin Taylor, Amanda Villalobos
Puppet and Set Design: Eric Novak
Music performed byNervous Cabaret :Elyas Khan (Guitar, Vocals, Electronics), Fred Wright (Cornet, Electronics), Matt Morandi (Bass, Electronics), Brian Geltner (High Hat, Percussion) and Gwen Snyder (Vocals, Guitar).
Lighting Design: James Latzel
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes with no intermission.
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, 212-868-4444
Also check out and
From 4/01/06 to 4/17/06
Saturdays through Wednesdays at 8:30 pm, with additional matinee performances April 15-16 at 4 pm
Tickets: $20; $15 if you buy tickets to both Charcoal Boy and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Reviewed Julia Furay based on April 2 performance.
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