Thunderbirds, trickster gods, firestones, puppetry and banjo make for a rollicking night of hootin’ and a hollerin’ in Phil Berman’s new play Three Blessed Brothers. Hewn from the great fables of the Lakota tribe, these are joyous stories for all ages . Aesthetically the show is satisfying and delightful. The strong designs of the Lakota people appears on the triangular backdrop, which in a moment of pure theatre magic, comes to life as the great blue Thunderbird as well as the purple storming sky. The use of color and scale is clear and defined and makes the story accessible to even the most distractible 8-year old girl and her hard of hearing grandfather. Phil Berman and his blessed brothers take us on a journey through land and sky that seeks to “explore, commemorate, revive, and celebrate the spiritual world native to this country.”
I dated a boy with a banjo this summer, and I think I stayed with him a month too long because I found that sound irresistible. My eyes widened the moment I saw the instrument, and he handed it to me and said with a twang “all you have to do is git in the country spirit and start strummin.” He was right, and in no time we were shoutin’ our own pseudo-spirituals to the hills of Brookline. Music has the power to enchant for it is the language of love and prayer. Ben Krakauer arranged some marvelous pluckin’ and a strummin’ for the show, which, recorded, accompanied the brothers songs. I did however, feel the absence of a live banjo. It would have completed my musical experience of the show if one, or all of the brothers had played an instrument—ala the aesthetically very similar, Pigpen Theatre co.
Native American ritual uses song, dance, costume, and music to give over to the Great Spirit. There are moments in Three Blessed Brothers that have a ritualistic feeling. The Deer Woman is summoned with a harrowing drumbeat, and emerges with a presence that transforms the space. In comparison, the songs of the show diverged from a world of reverence and ritual and let the audience see the brother’s endearing personalities. The show was characterized by such transitions between worlds. Each brother disappeared periodically behind a variety of puppets and masks, from the most adorable ducks to the otherworldly Deer Woman, and then came out to sing to the audience directly.
The vocal performances fell short of the compelling and joyous moments of clear storytelling and slapstick comedy from Sean, Joey, and Spencer. Under the direction of Sarah Martin, the three brothers told the story together every step of the way. It was a true ensemble piece that was clearly rehearsed with care and dedication from the entire team. As a workshop performance, it was entirely successful in giving me a sense of the storytelling of the Free Hands Puppet Theatre
I have heard that Three Blessed Brothers will venture to Boston area public schools in the near future to share the story. This is an incredibly exciting opportunity, and a sure way to test the strength and content of the production—children are so often the harshest critics. As work continues and the production expands, perhaps Sarah and Phil might consider expanding the diversity of the cast. In context of our nation’s history, I question the choice to have three white males tell the stories of the Lakota tribe. In light of the mass genocide the native people of this country endured, it seems inappropriate that their oppressors tell their stories. Indeed, it risks offense. I do not want to see a story as beautiful and touching as Three Blessed Brothers marked by a negligence of social and historical context. On a more intimate scale, I question the choice to cast such a small, and exclusively male ensemble in a CFA production, given the population of the school of theatre is majority female. I felt the absence of a female energy, and believe it would greatly aid the storytelling to introduce a female presence. Indeed, in the Lakota tradition, it was the women who educated the children about the traditions, rituals, and history of the tribe, and indeed, “the continuation of most Native American tribes’ oral traditions relied on female power” (Julie Collins, The Status of Native American Women: A study of the Lakota Sioux pg.7). If it really is necessary to keep the Brothers exclusively male, I would like to see a woman take on the spirits of the play, like the Thunderbird or the Deer Woman. This adjustment would make a great deal of sense, given that in most native traditions, the natural and spiritual worlds are ruled by women.
I thank everyone involved with Three Blessed Brothers for creating such an engaging theatrical experience. Your work has certainly elicited a response from me, and I hope to continue this conversation as the story and production continue to develop.