In 1987, the year I was 5, my mother took me to Providence, Rhode Island, to see a traveling production of The Wizard of Oz. It changed my life. Whereas before I had hoped to grow up to be a superhero or an archaeologist — like Indiana Jones, say — suddenly I wanted to be only an aesthete. I evicted my action figures from my room and hid my Superman cape beneath my bed. Within weeks, I was playing the Cats soundtrack on our cassette deck all day and night and wandering the house dressed like Ethel Merman in Alexander's Ragtime Band. (Nevertheless, I was genuinely surprised when my mother, upon my coming out of the closet as a homosexual some 14 years later, said, "Oh, honey, I know!")
The Wizard of Oz was, to my knowledge, the only well-funded children's show to blow through Rhode Island that year, which means most of the kids in my little state didn't have the opportunity that was afforded me. Who knows — if Rhode Island only had more for-kids theater, the world's next Stephen Sondheim might already have emerged from a little farmhouse in Ashaway or Kingston.
What Rhode Island should have — what every place should have — is an institution like Miami Shores' Playground Theatre. Currently running there is Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, a kids-appropriate bit of pagan revelry dredged up from the dawn of civilization — from the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, specifically — and liberally adapted by Fernando Calzadilla and the theater's artistic director, Stephanie Ansin.
Inanna and the Huluppu Tree
Inanna and the Huluppu Tree: Traditional, adapted by Stephanie Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla. Playground Theatre, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; 305-751-9550; theplaygroundtheatre.com
And there's no sense denying it: Inanna and the Huluppu Tree is as pagan as pagan gets, and in the best possible way. It is full of color, noise, and pageantry and is infused with a sense of awe at the order of the cosmos that reflects both early humanity's cosmological thinking and the magic veil through which children see the world. It is a paean to the Earth, to the ancients, to imagination, and to magic — both the make-believe magic of childhood and the very real magic of make-believe, which the theater exists to create and celebrate.
The show begins with a lavish scrim depicting the play's namesake goddess in stone relief. Behind it, priests chant the goddess's name along with booming, pre-recorded music that sounds as primeval as the sands of Mesopotamia. The priests are waiting for Gilgamesh, because today he is to be crowned king here, in the city of Uruk. But he's nowhere to be seen. Outside, the crowd — which, as it turns out, is composed of the kids assembled in the theater on the other side of the scrim — is getting restless.
The priests summon the goddess Inanna (Caroline Sa) to help sort things out. When she appears, Inanna really does seem to descend from Heaven, her demesne, which is located in a smoke-filled, cavernous space somewhere above and beyond the stage. In turn, she summons her father, the moon god Nannausen (Armando Acevedo) and her brother, the sun god Utu (Noah Levine), who both arrive to great fanfare. Inanna wants to plant a huluppu tree at the steps of her temple in Uruk to nourish and bless the citizenry until Gilgamesh's arrival. (It is understood that this could take awhile: Gilgamesh has gone in search of the fruit of eternal life, which is notoriously difficult to find.)
Inanna promises to look after the city while the tree grows. After receiving some dire warnings from her father, brother, and great-grandmother, Ninhursag (Melissa Almaguer, whose voice is piped through effects processors until every utterance sounds like a chorus of demons), Inanna plants her tree and bids goodbye to her fellow deities.
Years pass, the tree grows, and the god of medicine, Ningizzida (Jeff Keogh), arrives. Seduced by the fruit, he gives up his life as a wandering healer and moves in to Inanna's temple. He is joined, ten years later, by Siduri, the goddess of merriment (Kristen Dawn McCorkle), and ten years after that by Anzu, the god of storms (Jesus Quintero). These deities come to think of the tree quite proprietarily and hoard the fruit for themselves. Inanna is troubled: The fruit was meant for the people of Uruk.
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Stymied and feeling a bit of self-loathing (her family had warned her that growing this tree might mean trouble for the city), she can't quite bring herself to act until Gilgamesh (Joshua Ritter) shows up in the play's final minutes. He devises a nonviolent solution to the problem, and everyone leaves happy. (Everyone except, perhaps, the sourpuss Ningizzida, who looks like he wouldn't know happy if it bit him on his big bald head.)
Adults who accompany children to Inanna might have a hard time getting turned on by this plot, which is not only utterly G-rated but also devoid of the grownup-friendly double- and triple-entendres that have come to characterize kids' entertainment on film. But they can't help but get turned on by the Playground Theatre's eye-popping visuals — the crew's ability to import an atmosphere of mysticism and remote antiquity into a theater space that, pre-show, you'd think was too big and modern to seem like anything other than a big, modern theater.
Thunderous music that sounds a lot like Dead Can Dance swells up from the theater's outsize PA with no warning. Assorted deities come and go in billows of smoke like you haven't seen since the last Kiss tour. Anzu, who looks like a cross between an ancient astronaut and the world's most ferocious chicken, blows an ear-splitting gale every time he opens his mouth. He, along with Siduri, fly around the set doing somersaults in the air.
With Inanna, the Playground Theatre transports adults to a place where magic is a given. It cannot do the same for children, because the world of magic is one they already inhabit. What the Playground Theatre does for them, whether they know it or not, is make a promise: that one day, even after the long jading of growing up has taught them that the gods do not fly, that a city, no matter how divine, cannot be sustained by fruit, there is always a place beyond the footlights where those things can be true for a while.