FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Livsmedlet Theater

Livsmedlet Theater: Invisible Lands

January 19-22, 2023

Chopin Theatre

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: American-Scandinavian Foundation and Finnish Cultural Foundation

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A Big and Consequential Journey for Tiny Figures: Invisible Lands by Livsmedlet

An Essay by Claudia Orenstein

Finnish collaborative duo Livsmedlet offers in Invisible Lands an intensely moving experience of the plight of refugees as it traces a harrowing journey across dangerous, policed terrains towards safety and asylum. The show uses minuscule, static figurines of people in varying postures, rearranged moment to moment in different ways across diverse body parts of its two human performers, to tell its tale. It’s one drawn from Europe’s migrant crisis in the wake of the war in Syria but sadly resonant in too many other international contexts. 

As audience members enter the space, they find their seats on three sides of, and in intimate proximity to, the white rectangle that demarcates a constricted playing area. Here and there on the white flooring lie gatherings of tiny human forms, provocatively laid out and variously flanked by ordinary, everyday-sized objects—a spray bottle, a glass bowl, a camera. The accompanying sounds of crashing waves allow spectators to begin conjuring their own scenarios as they contemplate the setup: small figures, large objects, loud pounding surf—stories of danger are already set in motion.

A man and a woman (Ishmael Falke and Sandrina Lindgren), wearing matching yellow shirts and khaki pants, enter the rectangular space. After some time listening to the roaring waves, they ritually discard their shoes and socks. The man then pulls his shirt over his head and, revealing his bare back, lies down, curled up across the woman’s lap. The image is almost one of a pietà or of comforting someone in distress. But the man’s back soon transforms as well into a stage for the small characters that the woman lines up across it, along with a model of a town. As smoke magically rises from the fabricated city, we understand this line of humans to be fleeing their hometown as it burns. 

During the journey that ensues, this original multitude dwindles; at each phase figures disappear in the face of new hardships. And the human performers are progressively revealed as not merely puppeteers or dancers using their bodies as physical settings for the enactments but as the refugees themselves, their flesh increasingly marked by the travails acted out by their tiny avatars. A bus journey in the dark of night with a smuggler begins at a deserted spot near a lone lamppost. The scene is set up in miniature on the bottom of the woman’s feet as she lies on her back, legs in the air. The light of the lamp is powered by a battery pack wrapped by an ace bandage around her ankle, applied by her partner in a previous scene after a small figure’s misadventure. The bus then travels through the dark down a winding road, headlights on. (Impressively, the performers control a full array of technical cues from the stage by means of a foot peddle.) When the bus stops at daybreak and the lights come up, we see the road the vehicle traveled painted black-and-white in curving lines across the woman’s body. 

A trek up a mountain and across a barbed wire fence, while being shot at by marauding helicopters, is enacted by figurines clinging to and hiding within the legs of the two performers, who sit next to one another, knees intertwined to create mountain ranges. The search, seen from the helicopter’s point of view, is filmed from the stage and projected through live feed on an upstage screen. Although it is the small figures that scramble over the fence placed atop the actor’s knee, it is the male performer whose hands suddenly end up streaked with red blood from the barbs. 

For a hazardous boat journey, the man paints his partner’s stomach blue, and it is on the rough, rolling waves of her every breath that the small vessel rides and eventually overturns. The two performers, sitting side by side, then pour water into bowls they place in front of themselves and plunge their faces in for a disturbingly long stretch. Spectators can’t help but squirm and physically empathize with the humans, wishing them to disengage from the bowls in order to take another breath, while viscerally apprehending the struggles of the refugees in the dangerous waters. It is then on the man’s back, which the woman now paints half in blue as he lies across her lap like at the beginning, that tiny bodies from the wreckage wash up on a shore as miniature sunbathers look on. Only a single, surviving small figure appears in the final episode, standing at a border crossing, which opens to let her in.

The show ends with Lindgren now alone, while Falke lies in stillness across the floor, once again donning the yellow shirt and khaki pants she wore at the beginning. But in pulling the shirt over the blue paint on her stomach and the black lines of the road on her chest—her hair still dripping from her watery plunge—then pulling her pants on over her bandaged leg, we see that underneath her ordinary, familiar clothes she bears the scars and memories of every step of the journey, everything she has suffered and lost. She is deeply and forever transformed.  

Invisible Lands uses tiny, immobile figurines to bring spectators into an empathetic relationship, not only with the human characters who manipulate the figures but, more importantly, with the real migrants whose actual experiences the show reflects. It is one of the most affecting artistic presentations on this important, timely issue that I have yet witnessed. 

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