Vaudeville grime and a swampy miasma cover every square inch of Miniature Curiosa’s Moon City. It’s like Tim Burton befriended Tom Waits as a child and taught him to make home movies with dolls and play sets.
What is it exactly? Well, it’s a play based (one assumes very loosely) on the life of Frederick Ingersoll, an American inventor and amusement-park tycoon who decided around the turn of the 20th century to build an attraction called Moon City in some forsaken swamp.
Murphi Cook and Zach Dorn, the two actors and co-creators of the show, take on a variety of roles while manipulating all manner of homemade apparatus: shadow projections, grotesque puppets, elaborate paper models of exhibition halls and carnival rides, even a tiny flipbook for animation. Much of the action is projected live onto a screen via a camcorder. In gleeful abandon and sheer kinetic energy, Cook and Dorn are like a pair of children rifling through their toybox to tell a weird yarn.
The important thing to know is that, if you surrender yourself to the world they’ve created, it works as an immersive piece of art. It’s not high-class theater by any means — the characters are all cartoonish, with voices straight out of a radio drama — but if you’re willing to let them charm you, you’ll spend an entire hour in wide-eyed wonder.
The ethos of the play is encapsulated when Frederick’s wife Katie asks whether he has finished building her a tank in which to perform her mermaid routine. Ingersoll informs her that he’s built something better (spoiler alert: it’s not better, and is actually fairly horrific), and she replies, “Did you build me the ocean?”
Miniature Curiosa has created something at once nostalgic and deeply disenchanted. It’s a whimsical trifle and a hellish vision.
What else is there to say? There is a talking gator in a suit. There are vines that drag entire buildings into the swamp. On paper, none of it makes sense. In person, it is one of Piccolo Spoleto’s most daring and inventive shows in years.