Review: The Dragonfly Princess by Vortex Repertory Theatre
by David Glen Robinson
“There are fairies at the bottom of our garden…” the song goes. But they are no fairies such as these I’ll warrant. Fairy mythology and the land of faery have taken many turns in literature and the arts, their baby-stealing propensities amplified in Changelings, produced at Salvage Vanguard Theatre several years back. But in the dark, gothic imagination of Chad Salvata the fairies have become more contradictory, at once monstrous, magical, loving, quarreling, self-serving, passionate, reticent, crusading, warring, and worshipping of hierarchy. All these traits stand up front in The Dragonfly Princess, reimagined, reinvented, reinvigorated from its 2007 birth by Ethos, and directed to perfection by Bonnie Cullum. The mosaic of contradictions almost matches the mobile, interactive mosaic of the set and design fields.
The Vortex has a thrust stage, thus sets, lacking a curtain, are always exposed. They have the burden of creating the first impression of the show. The first impression of The Dragonfly Princess is overwhelming. Walking into the house, one falls to the bottom of the garden among giant grass stalks rising overhead to huge leaves that are material and affixed or else painted on the stage walls and ceiling. The floor is multilevel, with lumpy masses set about, sand grains no doubt. Many of the grass stalks are light tubes with red and gold colors coursing up and down their lengths. Color is its own theme in The Dragonfly Princess.
Recognition of the design fields is an immediate need, and they all deserve design awards. The set usually ties together all the other design fields. Ann Marie Gordon managed all this long-distance from Michigan. Her in-town assistants were Daniel Hernandez and Lilly Percifield. The vast sound and music fields were designed and implemented by Roy Taylor, Emily Taylor, and Adam Gunderson. The highly complex and colorful lighting design was the work of lighting master Jason Amato, assisted by Patrick Anthony, who also served as the master electrician. New award fields ought to be designed to honor Amato. He’s that good.
The one field that this reviewer insists must be nominated for a design award is costumes. Pam Fletcher designed and fabricated any number of character costumes, color-themed, insectoid, gossamer-winged, electrified, articulating, and just plain gorgeous. She may have built Xéphera’s huge fabric head which lit up with pin lights, but program notes did not so specify. If not, the credit goes to the “head” designers, Melissa Vogt McKnight and Oskar Brian.
The design fields blend and merge, never so much as in the character of Xéphera the dragonfly. Unlike the 2007 production in which the dragonfly was a fully constructed machine that sat and stayed onstage like a Cessna in its hangar, the modern dragonfly is a clever construction composited by the actors at need. No secrets here: the articulating actors simply made entrances and assembled as the dragonfly. The base was one of the sand lumps mentioned earlier. The head was worn by Oskar Brian, who sat in front and articulated the head in flight. The thorax was the seating area on the rising sand lumps, and the wings were inserted into slots on either side of the thorax and articulated by hand in “flight” by Johnny Veal, Jr., standing behind and reaching into their handles inside the thorax. Veal’s enormous head gear formed the longish tail of the dragonfly. As always at the Vortex, creative resources are at the fore and always challenged, successfully in the case of the new Xéphera.
One particular and massive design feature, a wonderful highlight, was that of the mosquitoes designed and fabricated by Helen Parish. At the bottom of this garden, mosquitoes are hulking, black-clad thugs with red-lighted, short knife blades for stingers and a swarm of red pin lights about their heads and shoulders in wire frameworks. The mosquitoes upon their first entrance in a cloud of smoke produced the frisson of horror. Their pin lights were their horde companions, but also in symbolic and synesthetic crossover they became the pain of mosquito stings on human skin. It was to recoil. The mosquitoes took over the show in two brief fighting scenes; they should have their own podcast. Their enactors were Campbell Duffy and Cameron LaBrie.
The Dragonfly Princess buzzes and flies in the performance class of cyber operas, sometimes called nu-operas, but opera at root, with the baseline that all lyrics are sung. The vocal arrangements assumed epic proportions; thus, star power was brought in to heighten their performance qualities. The group was composed of Salvata, Eryn Gettys, Melissa Vogt McKnight, and Jo Beth Henderson. Henderson is a vocal force of yore, one of the best and boldest singers in the history of Ethos and Vortex. Gettys and McKnight of course have key and extensive singing roles in the production and much experience with cyber operas.
Salvata switches adjectives with every nuance in the genres of his librettos, and in this one The Dragonfly Princess is a faery opera. The plot is operatic, well-colored with conflict but tinged with Goth black. Mala, the Princess of the queendom of Ovona, played by Melissa McKnight, is sent on a quest to find an orb of power to be reunited with the one held by her mother Qlye, Queen of Ovona, played by Gina Houston. Trouble is expected because the garden is vast and deep, and Mala is granted a powerful magical tool, Xéphera the dragonfly, which, with her mother’s orb, heightens her agency to superpower status. On Xéphera, Mala departs on her quest, but trouble is indeed daunting, and by the end of the first act she is in thrall to and menaced by Vyn, Sorceress of Koil Temple, played by Hayley Armstrong, who has ambitions of her own. Act II involves
Mala struggling for release and resolution of the many issues with the orbs and Ovona.
The cast was excellent, and standouts were many, but not all can be mentioned, given space issues. Lilly Percifield played multiple roles on stage and in the tech fields. She has an auspicious future with Vortex. Likewise, John Rodgers as Roko. He performed through his outlandish, fantastical costume to create a memorable, sympathetically human character behind his monster. His was an interesting duality, perhaps not intentional.
Eryn Gettys by her physicality always creates an ethereal esthetic, heightened here by huge, bejeweled hair, and she was perfectly dually cast as Quain, High Priestess of Xhali Temple and as the Dragonfly Goddess. Her voice and its range always command her minions and fan hordes. She is one of the long-term Vortexians who can be relied upon to make the magic happen.
Hayley Armstrong as Vyn, Sorceress of Koil Temple, made this story happen in her appearances antithesis and foil to every other character. She has the stuff perhaps matched only by Melissa Vogt’s Vampyress of a few years back.Armstroong went over the top by intent to find her character and inhabit it. All elements of self are at her command—face, eyes, sneering mouth, legs with glued on gemstones that might also look like carbuncles, and fingers twitching uncontrollably on her power staff. May the Villainess return in many sequels.
Melissa Vogt McKnight is the heart and driving force of this and all the Vortex’s cyber operas. Her operatic voice yearns for roles such as this one in The Dragonfly Princess. At the same time, she’s no diva, for she shares with everyone on stage unstintingly. At one point, she stood on stage near where this reviewer sat while other characters sang. She did not relax or drop character in the slightest but reacted to others where no one could see her. She knows that the slightest elements piled on each other build highly successful shows. It must be a privilege for other performers to work with her.
The Dragonfly Princess is gone now. Follow Vortex on its website for announcements for new and future cyber operas. Their production requirements are high, and their resource draws are heavy, so they cannot be produced frequently. Take advantage of these concentrations of art while you can; they may not be produced forever, and may become as rare as the fairies at the bottom of your garden.
March 25 - April 15, 2023
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
Thursdays-Saturdays 8 pm | Sundays 6 pm
Live-Streamed Thursday March 30, 2023
ASL-Interpreted Saturday April 1, 2023
Industry Night Wednesday April 12, 2023 8 pm
Vortex Repertory, Manor Road, Austin
Tickets $15 - $37, available online HERE