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Puppets bring sensitivity to childhood infirmity

Russian immigrant Igor mentors Grace through puppetry

Photo credit: Adam Intriago

New playwright Jessie Strauss remembers the uncomfortable sensations of childhood epilepsy - loss of balance, numbness, headaches and mood swings. It was difficult as a child for her to cope with an inability to control her body and to understand her condition. So, years later, when she began writing a play about a little girl struggling with the disorder, she thought of a metaphor.

She remembered the Russian immigrant Igor Fokin who used to perform a delightful puppet show on the streets of Cambridge, Mass. Unlike a person afflicted by epilepsy, the puppet master was perfectly able to manipulate the limbs of his handmade marionettes to walk, dance and play musical instruments with amazingly lifelike motion.

In Strauss’s new play, Grace and Igor, a young girl with epilepsy (Tenea Intriago) forms a close bond with a puppeteer (Bob Edes Jr.). The child’s mother (Marie Lovejoy) becomes frantic when her daughter collapses. Her teacher and playmate (Emily Russell) cannot comprehend what’s wrong. Igor is her only solace. Grace tries to hide the problem, then takes extreme measures to satisfy them all.

“This is the Grace everyone wants,” she says, forcing her limbs to behave.

The concept for the play is not solely about one disease, but can apply to any visible flaw that is not easily controlled, Jessie says. Young girls are always concerned about body image, for example.

Scenes from Grace and Igor were presented at the Sound Off! Festival for works in progress, and Strauss was introduced to Rebecca Frank, founder of In Good Company who instantly fell in love with the script. The women share an interest in magical realism.

“It is constructed like a poem, instead of realistic dialogue,” Frank says.

Together, they cast an incredibly intuitive actress, Tenea Intriago as the child. Having survived a broken home in real life, Intrigiago was uniquely suited to the role of a confused and wounded adolescent. Igor is played by Bob Edes, Jr., one of New Orleans' most gifted character actors. "He really was a gem," Frank says.

The difficult story is told through traditional narrative, stylized movement and audiovisual artworks created by artist Courtney Keller with lighting by Diane Baas. Original puppets were crafted by Keller, Daphne Loney, Bridget Erin and Pandora Gastelum.

Grace and Igor was produced by Generate INK in partnership with In Good Company. Although its run at The Tigerman Den is over, they hope to reproduce the show for New Orleans Fringe Festival.

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, New Orleans Advocate and Gambit, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at mary.rickard@sbcglobal.net.