Presented by Bremen Town Collective
From the moment the bird first flutters onto the scene, I knew I was in for something special. This delicate, surprisingly convincing little creature is puppeteered by the cast as it flits about and perches on shoulders. Taking precedence over any symbolic significance, the impression it gives of actual life is deeply touching.
Bremen Town, part of Next Stage Festival, is a fable about coming to the end of a long life. After forty-five years of dutiful service to Völksenhaus as head housekeeper, the intrepid Frau Esel (Nancy Palk) has just been replaced with a younger model. Angry and determined to put distance between herself and the painful fact of her obsolescence, she sets off on foot to Bremen to live with her son.
Along the way, she collects a handful of grizzled humans. Each carries the burden of having outlived their usefulness in their own unique way. Esel is resentful and curmudgeonly, focusing the last of her stamina on practical, forward momentum. There isn’t a single wasted gesture or vocal inflection in Palk’s portrait of a clever, steely woman. Oliver Dennis contrasts her stony facade with his endearing turn as a struggling magician, Herr Hund. They happen upon Herr Katze (William Webster), a forlorn yet bravely jovial man disappointed to find his childhood home reduced to rubble. They all help to rescue his sister, Frau Henne (Deborah Grover) from being sold to market by her desperate children. She’s a fragile husk of a human when they first find her, but with some attention, she blossoms out from her decrepit shell.
This ragtag troupe of elderly adventurers bicker and bond as they encounter all manner of whimsical strangers on their way to Bremen. They strive for hope and dignity while struggling with the harsh realities of aging. As they help each other come to terms with dwindling possibilities, they must contend with the ambitions of a new generation—represented by Simon Gagnon, Farhang Ghajar and Veronica Hortiguela in many colourful supporting parts.
Writer and director Gregory Prest lets the humour, heartbreak and dread exist together. On a bare stage lined with dusty carpets—a few distinctive props to add dimension—he conjures a whimsical atmosphere that surprises and delights. I was particularly amused by the rhythmic shuffling-in-place to simulate their constant walking. A narrator named Vogel (Tatjana Cornij) offers insightful asides and accompanies their journey on a sombre accordion.
Prest himself makes a memorable appearance in the play’s finale and reveals that resignation can be as bad, even worse, than animosity. Deep and murky currents of unspoken feeling run through the brief, wretched exchange between he and Palk. Though understated, the ache has stayed with me.
Joy and bleak inevitability exist side-by-side throughout this enchanting production, as does this bittersweet truth: our time here is a beautiful opportunity—singular and so terribly limited.