427_thBokan, the Bad Hearted
An Amazonian Tale

by Deidre McFadyen
Reviewed December 3, 2004

Federico Restrepo and his Loco7 Troupe’s Bokan, the Bad-Hearted, which was inspired by Amazonian indigenous myths about the fall of matriarchy, is an occasionally charming pastiche of puppetry, dance, and live music. It is a bad sign, though, when you read the program notes afterwards and are left scratching your head wondering how you could have missed so much.

The Colombian-born Restrepo, a resident choreographer and puppet designer of La MaMa e.t.c., drew on two field visits to the Yurupari people to create this color-spangled, musical pageant depicting the battle for supremacy between an irascible sun god (Tom Lee) and an ethereal water goddess (Denise Greber).

Dominating the stage in La MaMa’s cavernous annex is a huge white mask, on which video of the Amazon River and other more fanciful images is superimposed. The sun god, adorned in red body paint, pops out of its huge mouth and awakens a jungle of rainbow-colored trees, whose branches dip and sway at the command of puppeteers in the balcony. This sun god eventually impregnates an unsuspecting villager, who gives birth to the demigod Izi. Raised by the sun-god, Izi (played by Restrepo himself) returns to the village as Bokan the Bad Hearted to establish a new patriarchal order.

The plot according to the summary in the program and press notes is much more complicated than that, but it goes right over the heads of the audience, which is left time and again flailing to decipher the iconography of the dancers on stage. What is that fanged, serpentine creature growing out of the hip of the shaman? What are the orange sacks that the troupe hauls around? Why do the women give birth after emerging from holes in an undulating white sheet? What is the significance of the inflatable body puppets that emerge at the end?

Denise Greber has dreamed up outlandish costumes for the large cast. For most of the work, the stage is brightly lit; more inventive use of light and darkness would sharpen the dramatic arc and heighten the sense of the otherworldly.

As Izi’s mother, Abigail Rasminsky gives an emotion-packed performance that arouses the audience’s interest and empathy. In the play’s most moving scene, she cleaves to a tree trunk, clucking anxiously while trying to cradle the baby Izi she hears within its bowels. Her fellow actors, however, mostly fail to find the human pulse behind their elaborate get-ups.

Throughout the 90-minute drama, the characters jabber in make-believe indigenous languages a cacophony that does little to elucidate the proceedings. Our guidepost becomes Elizabeth Swados” resonant score, which is ably performed by a trio of musicians on guitar, drums, and various percussive and wind instruments from the region.

Bokan the Bad Hearted begins with a two-minute video clip of a downtrodden Yurupari woman in western dress who speaks in her native language (without subtitles) and performs a fragment of an ancestral dance for the camera. This prologue is no doubt intended to ground the work in its ethnographic roots, but as the evening wore on, I found myself wondering what that woman would have made of Restrepo’s interpretation of her people’s founding myths.