“Draw me a sheep,” is the Little Prince’s challenge to the stranded aviator in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s story, a request the pilot fails miserably to meet to the boy’s satisfaction. As readers of the French bedtime tale know, the man’s solution, to the delight of his young companion, is to draw a box which, he says, contains a sheep. Saint-Exupéry sets out in The Little Prince’s opening pages one of its primary messages: that imagination is a treasure of possibilities; a representation of reality is a flat substitute for the thing it means to capture. We never see the sheep the Little Prince had in mind because it is unique to his mind only.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t use our own imaginations to look into that box. Sachiyo Takahashi does, in sheep #1, a miniature world inspired by The Little Prince’s interrogations and the most poetic hour of theater you are likely to see at the moment.
That’s because sheep #1 is also a trip down the rabbit’s hole into Microscopic Live Cinema-Theater, a sub-genre of puppetry in which tiny figurines are filmed up-close as they are manipulated by a performer and the images are projected in real-time. The protagonist, if the term is not too grand, of sheep #1 looked to be about the size of my thumbnail, a tiny speck of white plastic when viewed from afar but when seen close-up, endowed with an undulating coat of wool and a fully formed head and face. In a world measured in millimeters, whole landscapes can be contained on the surface of a piece of paper, every wrinkle a mountain, every dust mote a rock.
The sheep does indeed travel, following the caprices of a pen doodle as if it were his own Yellow Brick Road. The path leads him to some strange and wonderful creatures: a beguiling music box dancer (but she is too charmed by her own reflections – enhanced by a mirrored cardboard lens – to pay attention to him), some imperturbably marching emperor penguins and a kind and philosophical rabbit who offers conversation the likes of which the sheep has never entertained. But in the most meditative moment of his voyage, his wanderings take him to a world of glaciers (ice cubes in a foil-lined pan that is heated from underneath), where we pause for a long moment to watch them slowly melt away. Riveted to her video camera and as motionless as the sheep who stands impassively fixed to an edge of the table, Takahashi captures every escaping air bubble as the miniature Antarctic dissolves into a sea of absence.
Looking at the world as if through binoculars leads the eye and the mind to see objects differently, of course, but if sheep #1 is a decidedly Zen-like meditation on existence, it is, for our benefit, a semi-guided one. The ice cubes are a landscape of solitude, each one carrying a printed message of loneliness. The sheep and the rabbit engage in discussion via dialogue cards that Takahashi inserts with tweezers into their frame of interaction (Sheep: “I like girls”; Rabbit: “I like words”…) and the sheep’s final epiphany is conveyed in the same way (an unexpectedly wry play on a motif from The Little Prince that I won’t divulge here). We ruminate the silent text, but not in silence: pianist Emile Blondel performs Chopin and Schubert live throughout the performance, and Takahashi’s sound effects underscore the sheep’s questioning, at times with the help of a willing audience member.
Miniatures provide a theater for taming the big questions of life, as anyone who has played with a dollhouse knows. A shrunken representation of reality also offers opportunities for distortions and perversions of it, an idea that is central to Alice in Wonderland but which has also been explored recently on stage; Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty’s Why Why Always (at Abrons Art Center in 2017) opened with a miniature car scene in winter, a teaser to a theater remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s dystopian film Alphaville. Takahashi’s Brooklyn-based Nekaa Lab is similarly interested in the language of cinematic storytelling, but her experiments with the surrealism of scale are essential to her intentions, designed to encourage intimate reflection with ourselves. Like The Little Prince that inspired it, sheep #1 is an allegory whose meaning remains as elusive as the sheep that can never be drawn, and the pleasure of lingering in its world is worth every question.
sheep #1 runs to May 20, 2018. More production info can be found here.