Out of darkness comes the seed of a beautiful flower. That’s what happens in Scottish Rite Theater’s production of “Ashes, Ashes,” but you have to be be surrounded by dark to get the flower at the end.
The story, written by Even Tulbert, a University of Texas alum with a master’s in fine arts for theater and dance and theater for youth, won Tulbert a Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences playwriting award.
The cautionary tale about what could happen in an over-industrialized world is beautifully written and well-performed, but you should know what you’re getting before attending and determine if your child will handle some scary imagery. The lights go out, the theater is dimly lighted in parts and there are nightmares about. The humor that is sprinkled throughout and the sweet moments between a mother and daughter, help this play from going too dark, but it is dark nonetheless.
In this dystopian world, everything runs on time, and that’s very important because it’s been years since the town has seen the sun through the clouds of thick industrial ash. One woman, who runs the town, is in charge of the on/off button, which creates day and night through artificial light. The whole town works at a factory, including Nini’s father. Her mother, Rosa, is too sick from the ash to be able to work anymore.
Nini (played well by Katy Smaczniak) has frequent nightmares as ash-covered people invade her dreams and she hears people talking hauntingly. The ash-covered people, who appear on stage as part of the scenery from the opening, could be particularly scary for the youngest members of the audience. They come to life and surround Nini as she is sleeping.
Nini goes to school and notices that her classmate, Edward, is missing. The Stop Watch (Megan Ortiz) and the History Book (Kathy Blackbird) erase her memory of his name after he’s “disintegrated.” We’re quite sure what is going on except that now Nini, the only kid at school, will have to recite the town history instead of Edward. The history song is very cheery and doesn’t make mention of ash, which is all over this world. It’s represented in piles and piles of gray strips of fabric that cover the stage and the stairs to the stage.
When Nini’s mother gets very sick and disintegrates, the Stop Watch and the History Book come to the home to erase Nini and her father’s memories of Rosa.
Nini is very upset and looking for answers. She runs away and down into the big coal hole, where she’s seen the Stop Watch and History Book throw names written on pieces of fabric to erase them. Sometimes they are names of people, sometimes they are names of plants or trees.
In the depths of the coal hole, she meets a mysterious woman who is wearing a coat made of all the names that have been lost. She gives Nini a recipe to recovering her mother’s name that includes making water come through stone, separating seed from ash, watering the seed and finding the sun to shine on the seed.
Nini starts her journey to complete these tasks that don’t seem to make any sense. In the end, she is able to return to the surface to regrow the memories in the form of flowers that are in stark contrast to the harsh, industrial world in which she lives.
“Ashes, Ashes” is a cautionary tale about protecting the environment, and kids in the audience understand that. The audience was mainly quite during this hour-long show, and afterwards, I heard parents ask their children if they liked it. It brought up discussions about ash and dust and growing flowers. It isn’t a show that your child is going to stand up and applaud loudly afterward. This is a show that will leave them thinking, enjoying it, but thinking. It’s best for elementary school-aged kids.
Aside from the acting, which was well-done, the sets, the lighting and sound really are part of the action and help you become fully immersed in this world.
There are some very cool features of seeing a show at Scottish Rite Theater. First, your kids are seeing theater in 140-year-old building. How often are kids in Austin surrounded by history like that? Second, they and you can sit on the carpet on the floor or choose your seating. The advantage of the carpet is that theater is all around you as actors enter from behind and from the side. Third, afterwards, you can talk to the actors in the lobby, get them to sign your program and ask them questions.
“Ashes, Ashes,” 11 a.m. Saturdays through May 23; 2 p.m. Sundays through May 17. $12 adults, $8 children 12 and younger. Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th St. scottishritetheater.org.