As the first shadow-puppet thesis show in Reed history, The Deluge combined incredible sound design, a whimsical cast of shadow puppets, and mythical storytelling to create an immersive half-hour tale of natural disaster, transformation, and courage. Violet McAfee, who created and directed the show as a component of her thesis, was inspired to create the project after taking a puppetry class in the theater department. “It was a combination of the puppetry class as well as my interest in lighting design that brought me to shadow puppetry. It's a very spiritual medium, and that lends itself well to the kind of art I want to make,” Violet explained. Violet switched to theater late in her time at Reed, and is proud to be directing an entire original show, something she never would have expected upon switching majors.
The Deluge tells the story of a mother bear whose cub is kidnapped by a seaweed monster that emerges from rising floodwaters, and her quest to reunite with her child, meeting friends and enemies as she descends deeper into the ocean in search of the monster’s domain. While the story is relatively straightforward, the technical aspects of the show were far from simple. A total of 80 shadow puppets, beautifully designed by Juliana Cable, were used in the thirty minute-long production (theater majors creating original works are limited to brief productions in order to keep projects manageable). The creation of the show as a whole was highly collaborative, requiring intense involvement from puppeteers Juliana Cable, W. Griffin Hancock, Adrianne Leary, Maya Nájera, and Hadley Parrish-Cotton, as well as sound, lighting, set and prop designers. “If it had not been this team, the show would have been totally different,” Violet said. In addition to the puppets behind the screen, set designer Liam Mitchell built a moat of water complete with pebbles and branches, displayed at the foot of the screen so that shadows of ripples could be projected in the underwater scenes.
The emphasis on visuals and sound effects sets The Deluge apart from other Reed productions, which typically feature visible actors and plenty of dialogue. “I didn't want there to be dialogue from the beginning, because I wanted the moments to speak for themselves,” explained Violet. “I wanted the audience to be able to just focus on the beautiful images in front of them instead of on trying to listen to a description of what was going on.” Sound designer Ryan Gamblin was given almost complete creative control over the audio, to a beautiful and spellbinding effect. From bear grumbles to ocean waves to crunching footfalls through a pre-flood forest, it was the sound design that wove the images together into a cohesive story.
My favorite moment in the show was a moment of transformation, one of the prominent themes of the play. The shadow screen goes dark. Suspenseful ostinatos swell as the mother bear puppet appears alone, illuminated by a single spotlight and surrounded by darkness. Then, a puppeteer’s giant hand enters the light, approaches the bear, and strokes her gingerly. The hand proceeds to gently remove the mother bear’s hind legs, attaching a powerful fish tail in their place. As the hand retreats, the spotlight fades, and the full screen returns. The mother bear emerges as a mer-bear, transformed and better able to take on this submerged world. While delightful in and of itself, the scene of the mother bear’s transformation could represent a variety of big changes, perhaps surreal or previously unimaginable, that become necessary in order to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
In the director’s note handed out at the show, Violet mentions that The Deluge is a story about persevering through disaster, and offers her condolences to those who have struggled through a year of devastating hurricanes and other disasters. “[The Deluge] was meant to be a story of hope, and when seemingly supernatural events occur—natural disasters are a great example—it feels like the only way to make sense of them is to turn our attention elsewhere, to bigger forces and bigger stages, and maybe try to ask for their help,” said Violet. “The Deluge shows us that there is a way through the desolation, but it might not be the way we expect.” At the end of the show, I was reluctant to step away from The Deluge’s sonic ambiance and visual language so soon. The audience was left with a scene of mother and cub, now both equipped with fishtails, exploring their new submerged world together.
All in all, The Deluge speaks to the ways you might find yourself transformed, and how such transformations can lead to wonderful and unexpected outcomes in the face of disaster.
Cover photo by Caleb Codding.