Tale of the Woodcarver

Unique theater-dance piece explores the life of Wisconsin artist Levi Fisher Ames.

By - Oct 24th, 2018 03:42 pm
Against the Grain: The Life & Times of Levi Fisher Ames. Photo by Ruffolo Photography courtesy of Danceworks.

Against the Grain: The Life & Times of Levi Fisher Ames. Photo by Ruffolo Photography courtesy of Danceworks.

The inspiration may be the life and home-carved menagerie of a largely unknown Wisconsin 19th century woodcarver, Levi Fisher Ames, whose fantastical boxed creatures toured county fairs in the 19th century and have been preserved at Sheboygan’s Kohler museum.

But director Edward Morgan and actor John Kishline looked deeper. They imagined the horrors of the Civil War that made the untutored Ames find solace in carving little creatures out of wood. They set that insight on the final day of Ames’ life in a Madison veterans’ home in 1923 when few remembered his obsessive past and thought the old man was just dreaming.

There, the full-sized modern dance bodies of Danceworks come to life as his animals, prowling and wiggling around his lonely cot and bedpan. Their antics and his memories of rural Wisconsin are illuminated by Kym McDaniel’s rear screen projections in an almost mystical focus-change filtering of words, historic images and modern dance moments.

The techniques give ghostly form to the old times and potent carvings. The audience has many places to look as Ames reacts in front of us and the menagerie cavorts in echo of his thoughts. Wherever we look intrigues us in “Against the Grain: The Life & Times of Levi Fisher Ames.”

This is a minimalist multimedia event at Danceworks combining many creative talents. It features a bit too much of the choreography of Dani Kuepper (though hauntingly done by a half-dozen regulars) as Kishline plays Ames and interacts both touchingly and didactically with his own memories and now full-sized creations.

This is a well put-together 75 minutes that catches us in what visions and regrets flood his final lucid moments and trace how this burst of animals from his imagination kept him sane after the horrors of the Civil War. Society may have laughed, called him eccentric or a primitive, but Ames pulled sanity out of wood by working against the establishment grain, or so this story suggests.

While several interactions are compelling and even amusing, Morgan and Kishline are less successful bringing to life in words the vaudeville corniness and tent fair pitches when Professor L.F. Ames (he really did use that moniker) toured Wisconsin with his packaged menagerie. Ames’ memories in Kishline’s hands live larger in his family relations and trembling interaction with his menagerie than they do when his professorial disguise produces tall tales for the unknowing rubes.

Kishline’s wife – another Theatre X legend, Deborah Clifton – adds a gentle matter-of-factness as his supportive wife, sort of an embodiment of the play’s message about family love enduring no matter how strange the family member seems to others.

Kirk Thomsen ably enacts several roles from drunken son to sympathetic orderly. But the main constant performer is Kishline. His intensity becomes a valuable anchoring presence as Ames confronts the demons of living and dying.

Choreographer Kuepper, also Danceworks’ artistic director, has concocted a sinewy individualized world of movement and interrupted arabesques, creating group movement but distinctive personalities, with a little clog dancing thrown in. The shadows of the performers meld with the rear screen images to create many a haunting moment of understanding for the patrons in Danceworks’ small but beautifully arranged space.

But there is a price. The sense of forward motion the piece needs may be a bit at odds with the length of the dance scenes and the animals’ lingering farewell to their wood-manipulating master.  The audience is almost forced to give over to the sentiments invoked — you have to still your impatience for faster storytelling and revel in the images of “Against the Grain.”

The play will perform October 25-28 at Danceworks (1661 N. Water St., but the theater entrance and parking are around back). It will also travel to Sheboygan’s Kohler Arts Center Nov. 9-10 where patrons can inspect Ames wood carvings, collected and preserved lovingly as he clearly hoped they would be.

Against the Grain Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here and here.

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