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Radar L.A. Review: ‘Clouded Sulphur’ At The REDCAT

Renée Fabian |
September 27, 2013 | 2:29 p.m. PDT

Contributing Writer

“Clouded Sulphur (Death is a Knot Undone)” fuses art, the supernatural and reality in a chilling performance of puppetry, video, speech and music. Written by Erik Ehn, directed by Janie Geiser and scored by Valeria Opielski, it is an experiential search for answers.

Puppet Brenda in the mountains during Clouded Sulphur production (Photo by Steven Gunther)
Puppet Brenda in the mountains during Clouded Sulphur production (Photo by Steven Gunther)
Grounded in harsh reality, “Clouded Sulphur (Death is a Knot Undone)” centers around 15 year old Brenda Sierra’s disappearance October 18, 2002, on her way to a friend’s house and then school in Los Angeles. She never reached either destination, and her body was found near Crestline Highway in San Bernardino County the next day. Her abductor and murderer are still at large. 

The broken narrative of Brenda’s murder unfolds through her siblings, sister Fabiola and brother Julio, as they search the mountains, roaming the wild territory just outside of Los Angeles. Fabiola’s recounting of phrases like “black back pack” and “brown Doc Martens” as she attempts to retrace Brenda’s footsteps the day she disappeared are haunting each time they repeat.

Ehn mixes in elements of the mystical--the reoccurrence of the Lynx in the night sky or the story of two pine trees--and borrows elements from a variety of cultures. For example, Fabiola recounts there are four detectives on Brenda’s case, an unlucky number in Chinese culture because the words ‘four’ and ‘death’ are similar. Later while in the mountains, Fabiola happens upon a deer attacked by four wolves. The purposeful inclusion of these mythical and cultural details adds another layer of complexity.

Piecing together the meaning of Ehn’s multifaceted story is not an easy task. The entire production contains few complete sentences. Fractured bits of information are presented in spoken word and a variety of media through the puppetry, video projected on the walls and on the mountain set, and through music. Whether it’s a puppet scene or a video snippet created by Carole Kim, the story is told in a series of flashes that don’t string together in a logical sequence.

Overhead view of the mountain during production of Clouded Sulphur (Photo by Amanda Shank)
Overhead view of the mountain during production of Clouded Sulphur (Photo by Amanda Shank)
The obscured story leaves room to search and grasp for answers that can't be found, a parallel to the inability to solve Brenda's murder. This also creates space to sink into emotion without distraction; there is no choice but to be in the moment, as each story fragment becomes it’s own experience. Fabiola’s grief as she crumbles and then exhausts herself in a burst of physical energy is particularly memorable.

The intricacy of the puppetry is exquisite. Though puppets, they take on human essence thanks to their skilled handlers. Care is taken in the smallest details, as Fabiola and her daughter’s forms rose and fell with the minute movements of sleep even when they are dimly lit and not the main focus. 

The seamless coordination between puppets, video, sound and music displays Geiser’s artistry as a director and the performers’ talent. An eerie vibe shrouds the production, enhanced by the addition of Opielski’s musical score. A combination of haunting harmonies and dissonances add an edge to everything the music accompanies.  

“Clouded Sulphur (Death is a Knot Undone)” creates a thought-provoking journey of which Brenda’s death comprises only one piece. It raises many more questions than it answers. Beautifully presented in the intimate Automata theater space, “Clouded Sulphur (Death is a Knot Undone)” is searching. Searching for what? That is still an unsolved mystery.

“Clouded Sulphur” is playing through September 29 at REDCAT (504 Chung King Court in Chinatown, Los Angeles). Tickets are $20-$25. For more information visit REDCAT.org

More coverage of the Radar L.A. Festival 2013 can be found here.

Reach Contributing Writer Renée Fabian here, or follow on Twitter here.



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