The nearly unconscionable sweltering heat that infested the neatly dilapidated top floor of an old Slovenian social hall nestled back on a side street in outer Lawrenceville was apropos for the staging of folkLAB’s most recent piece, The Ironweed Tales. As the humidity saturated the air like a bloated Burl Ives song, a woman softly treaded from the back of the attic, projecting a hauntingly numinous warble as she approached the main stage. Her ruefully lilting lyrics permeated the dusty solemnity of the stage, the words alluding to the grit and mettle of the peoples of Appalachia, specifically the steadfast women of Appalachia, and they lingered achingly as another woman took the stage to introduce us to the world and impassioned narratives of three women fighting for the integrity and safety of their families, their land, and their own worth.
Ironweed Tales, a multi-media piece put forth by folkLAB’s first artist-in-residence Felicia Cooper as the incipient work of the company’s miniMythologies project, is a striking performance art exploration of identity and myth (miniMythologies core tenets) through the voices of women who refuse to abnegate their pride and love of their families and Appalachian homes. Importantly, Ironweed Tales—an apropos title which nods to a flower known for its steadfast posture and unrelenting, beautiful resilience—deftly interweaves mediums of traditional oration, musical performance (executed exquisitely by Juliana Carr), and puppetry that create a riveting tapestry of folk-tale conveyance. The mixing of styles in Ironweed elevates the three vignettes and the overarching message past the point of story-book-esque retelling of mountain fables or a romanticizing of women in hardship (a dangerous territory many Appalachian narratives tend to veer into), and instead allows the piece to have a quality of folk authenticity that superbly actualizes each woman and each story’s truth. Of the elements adroitly incorporated in Ironweed, the most gorgeously eerie is the puppetry, clearly Cooper’s passion and forte. The puppetry introduces an aspect of surreal accessibility, which is to say that the passages of the narrative conveyed through puppetry both evoke the otherworldly feelings—of sorrow, of hopefulness, of connectivity, of pride—the women and narratives have attached to Appalachia, but in such a way that those on the outside can easily be moved by.
While much of Ironweed’s strength lies in the multidimensionality of the story that gives each woman their own interiority and each story its own power and mystique (without exoticizing), the real success of the piece is the outstanding commitment to the narrative that is palpable from all of the individuals involved. Whether it is Cooper’s deft maneuvering between the three women’s lives and stories that seamlessly interweaves all of their unique identities; or Carr’s masterful narrativizing vis-à-vis song and instrumental performance that captures the ineffable spirit of the Appalachian communities; or programming manager Abigail Lis-Perlis and AD/Stage Manager Ally Tayag Ricarte’s meticulous work—alongside the rest of the tech/production team—to bring the stories to stage, each individual makes Ironweed a superb immersion in the myths and identities of Appalachian women. Moreover, as someone whose writing and studies lead me to seek out alternative or unconventional forms of queer expression, the subtle and distinct ways in which these three stories of Appalachian women and the essence of rural life and survival were fantastically posited as queer made the show a transcendent experience. If Ironweed Tales is any indication of the future of folkLAB and the unfolding career of Felicia Cooper, it is truly something to be excited for.
The Ironweed Tales runs through June 3 at Aftershock Theatre in Lawrenceville. For tickets and more information click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews