Claudia Stevens is a performance artist adept at using the unlikely to unearth unexpected truths.
The unlikely components of In the Puppeteer's Wake - her moving one-woman show at the Theatre Project - are fairy tales and the Holocaust. The truths she unearths concern survival, identity and self-discovery.
The Richmond-based performer revealed a talent for unusual juxtapositions in her previous Theatre Project piece, Playing Paradis, in 1994, which interwove the biography of a blind 18th-century Viennese musician with Stevens' own discovery of her parents' hidden past as Holocaust survivors.
In Puppeteer, she uses an even more bizarre juxtaposition to explore that discovery in greater depth. This time she splices the tale of Hansel and Gretel, her father's escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Palestine, and his mother's death when she attempted to follow him a year later.
As she explains in the opening moments, Hansel and Gretel is included because four decades ago, her father made puppets of the fairy-tale characters for a televised puppet show on which she played Gretel. Although the adult Stevens isn't the most skillful puppeteer, her father's puppets - doll-like figures on sticks, mounted on a small table on stage - are an integral part of In the Puppeteer's Wake.
Stevens reveals her family's harrowing Holocaust story gradually through her own narration and letters written by her father, grandmother and a traveling companion of her grandmother's. A trained musician, she sings these letters and accompanies herself on the piano, at times playing piano with one hand, manipulating a puppet with the other and singing simultaneously. (Overall, however, this challenging work might benefit if she brought in a director to make the transitions more fluid.)
The 90-minute piece includes an additional recurring element - sea voyages. Stevens divides the production into four scenes, each named for a ship that figured prominently in her family's history: the Queen Elizabeth II, on which she crossed the Atlantic with her mother as a college graduation gift in 1969; the S.S. Katina, the battered freighter that transported her father to safety in Palestine in 1939; the S.S. America, on which her parents sailed to their new home in the United States in 1947; and the Milos, on which her grandmother began her fatal journey to Palestine in 1940.
Stevens also incorporates quotations from the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, and himself a Holocaust survivor. She delivers these passages in a Viennese accent, while hidden behind a mask of the psychologist's face.
But even Bettelheim's analyses could not have anticipated the eerie coincidence of Stevens' father choosing to mount a puppet show based on a tale in which a witch bakes children in an oven.
"She who'd fancied herself in a play, finds she is anyway," Stevens says of herself near the end of In the Puppeteer's Wake. Unlike the usual disclaimers, the program for this production states: "All incidents depicted in the piece are entirely factual."
In the end, the unlikeliest thing about Stevens' show may be that there's a factual basis for the juxtaposition of the Holocaust, fairy tales and sea voyages. A voyage of self-discovery taken by a woman who found out her presumed past was a fairy tale, In the Puppeteer's Wake is a haunting journey.
In the Puppeteer's Wake
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. tonight, tomorrow, Jan. 24-26; 3 p.m. Jan. 20 and 27