Come along with me on a journey. It’s one that crosses the worlds of music, art, dance, literature, and a story so metaphysical, the nature of reality is called into question upon every note, illustration, movement, and sentence.
“The Adventures of Oliver Z. Wanderkook” is the brainchild of local musician Jonny Peiffer. Starting out as an album for the 2007 RPM Challenge, Peiffer evolved his “Wanderkook” project from a piano-based composition into a multi-media concept. A flower blossoming one petal at a time, elements of “Wanderkook” grew as local actor and director Dan Beaulieu provided the text, dancer Sarah Duclos organized the choreography, artists Catherine Stewart and Sara Peiffer provided the illustrations, and CJ Lewis tied it all together as director.
The finished product opened last weekend at West End Studio Theatre (WEST) in Portsmouth and runs through June 25. Guests at the show are treated to a wildly imaginative journey to fantastical places filled with music and art.
Described by Peiffer as part “Alice in Wonderland,” part “Gulliver’s Travels,” and part “The Wizard of Oz,” the “Wanderkook” story explores a theme that’s ingrained in human instinct. Oliver Z. Wanderkook, “a studious anthropologist … and a tireless adventurer and explorer,” travels into foreign territory and chronicles what he sees, and the audience follows him on his journey, regardless of how reliable he is as a narrator.
The breadcrumb of Wanderkook’s journey starts simply with, “I leave you here a story and an occasional rhyme.” From there, the performance spills into a world of jazz music, interpretive dance, interactive animation, and a bottomless well of imagination.
The performance begins in the gallery wing of the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center (PMAC), which displays sketches and drawings of Wanderkook’s belongings, including his hat, tobacco tins, leather-bound journal, and musical instruments. The illustrations, created by Dean Diggins, depict Wanderkook in various stages of his journeys to an unknown destination. Diggins drew inspiration from Wanderkook’s journal entries, penned by Dan Beaulieu.
Suddenly, the lights flick out, and a lonely spotlight shines on Wanderkook’s journal in the middle of the gallery. As he introduces his journey, the sound of a trumpet comes from outside. Musician Zach Lange, like a less sinister Peid Piper, then leads the audience out PMAC’s back door, through the West Gardens and into the WEST space.
From there, Peiffer’s septet, Sojoy, eases into waltzy-jazz introductions. Audience members take their seats as dancer Amanda Whitworth takes over the room. She translates Sarah Duclos’ choreography into an interpretive dance with such fluidity, you’d think it was improvised. Throughout Wanderkook’s journeys, Whitworth uses every inch of the performance space to swirl up all the notes pouring from Sojoy’s brass section.
The story begins with Wanderkook setting sail on his latest adventure. His soon faces a terrible storm, which destroys his boat and leaves him stranded at sea. From then on, the show presents a spiderweb of journeys within journeys. Wanderkook travels to the nine tribes of the Land of Two Suns, a fantasy world documented with such clarity that the audience is left to question what exactly is real.
The culture of each tribe is meticulously translated into music, dance, literature, and illustration. The Cloud Tribe’s enduring blur of Brazilian-style jazz is a world apart from the funky, syncopated rhythms of the Funky Fungi Mushroom Chorus. The River Goddess’ gypsy gyrations contrast with the Two-Faced Man’s sarcastic shuffle, a ragtime number bordering on vaudeville.
During the June 18 performance, New Hampshire Youth Poet Laureate Ella McGrail served as the special guest reader of Wanderkook’s journal, taking on multiple vocal styles. She tossed and turned tones quickly from Wanderkook’s hardened journalistic-style observations to his playful yet perplexing stream-of-consciousness poems.
As the stories unfold, Wanderkook’s drawings are displayed in animation on a projector screen at the far corner of the room. The animation, produced by Catherine Stewart and Sara Peiffer, creates a visual stimulant that helps the audience follow the chronology of Wanderkook’s tale.
Though the production has many important players, the key performer is imagination — the imagination of the show’s creator, the band, the writers, the choreographers, and even the audience, which ultimately is invited to weigh in on what’s happening. There’s no right or wrong answer, as the entire exploration is left open to interpretation. No one knows for sure what’s going on — not even Wanderkook himself — and that’s the beauty of it.
“The Adventures of Oliver Z. Wanderkook” is on stage Friday and Saturday, June 23 and 24, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 25, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25, or $10 for kids age 12 and under. For more information, click here.