Theater Review - The Colour of Her Dreams puts mental illness under the looking glass

Puppeteer Michael Haverty reflects on his late mother in his latest play

When puppeteer Michael Haverty was a boy, he never knew there was anything wrong with his mother.

Aspiring painter Keturah Curbow divorced Dusty Haverty when their son was less than a year old.

Michael Haverty visited his mother every other weekend as a child and remembers her home being full of paint supplies and creativity. "She was a kooky artist like me," he says.

In 1998, Curbow died after slipping into a diabetic coma. Haverty was 17 at the time, and only later did he learn that his mother suffered from a bipolar disorder that required multiple hospitalizations. "She passed away before I was a man and able to talk to her as an adult. We never discussed her disorder or her health challenges," he says.

Haverty will pay homage to his mother's life and work with The Colour of Her Dreams, an avant-garde puppetry-based show opening April 21 at 7 Stages. Through the lens of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, The Colour of Her Dreams uses masked actors, rod and body puppets, dance and original music to bring Curbow's art to life. An exhibit of Curbow's work drawn from the 250 pieces Haverty inherited will run concurrently in the 7 Stages lobby.

Alice in Wonderland informed much of Curbow's art, from straightforward, storybook-style illustrations of scenes such as the heroine's encounter with Humpty Dumpty to more impressionistic, sorrowful watercolors of Alice falling through space or isolated against empty backgrounds. Haverty read his mother's journals as research for The Colour of Her Dreams, and discovered that Curbow used the images of Carroll's heroine as a therapeutic means to deal with the topsy-turvy experiences of mental illness and medical care. "My mother used Alice as an avatar to work through her challenges. In a way, she became Alice."

Not surprisingly, Haverty found researching the painful episodes of his mother's life over the last two years to be an emotionally intense experience. "It's cathartic to release all this material that I've been hoarding. I researched her medicines and talked to therapists, and looked back to stuff that I took as normal when I was a kid, like her habit of rocking back and forth," he says. "Whenever she mentions her kids in her journal — my sister and me — it's like the bright spot of happiness amid all this crazy she was going through."

As a puppeteer and playwright, Haverty specializes in surreal images that operate more on dream logic than conventional narratives. Still, with The Colour of Her Dreams, he wants to give the audience a concrete sense of his mother as a person. The play takes Alice/Curbow through Wonderland's famous vignettes, including the Mad Hatter's tea party and the meeting with the Cheshire Cat, but most of her lines come from Curbow's life and writings. Carroll's Dodo, for instance, becomes "Dr. Dodo," a stand-in for Curbow's mental health professionals.

Haverty has never been one to shy away from ambitious projects, including adaptations of William Faulkner and Gilgamesh. In 2009, The Phantom Limb juxtaposed Little Red Riding Hood with the story of real-life serial killer Albert Fish. But Haverty hesitated before tackling his mother's life. "I've always wanted to do this play. I knew I wanted to do an Alice in Wonderland show that had a connection to mother," he says. "But I didn't want to do it until I felt that I knew how to make a play. After The Phantom Limb in 2009, I felt like I knew enough to do this show."

Haverty is unsure whether his mother's example inspired him to be an artist, or whether creativity was already in his DNA. Either way, The Colour of Her Dreams will put Curbow's creative legacy on display.

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