In the Estonian folktale upon which Cutting Ball Theater’s new experimental piece is loosely based, little Lona (a piquant, pigtailed Marilet Martinez) lives with her father and a cruel stepmother (Madeline H.D. Brown, vibrant and faintly malevolent).
Gathering strawberries dangerously near the Tontlawald — the “ghost forest” — Lona is captivated by a free-spirited nature girl (a charismatic Rebecca Frank).
A look-alike doll is sent back home to take Lona’s place, and years pass as Lona cavorts with her new forest playmate and other woodsy spirits. The cruel stepmother is doomed.
Don’t expect a clear rendition of that story in this imaginative, and at times frustratingly opaque, piece by resident playwright Eugenie Chan; directors Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino; choreographer Laura Arrington; and the golden-voiced, physically agile, eight-member ensemble — all of whom had a hand in the creative process.
Rather, “Tontlawald” is a fractured, deconstructed and abstracted version of the tale, told and retold obliquely in mostly physical and musical ways through the central characters and a sort of bemused and interactive Greek chorus.
Bits of narrative and dialogue float about, uttered at times in repetitive phrases. Some of the text derives directly from the folktale (“Have you ever been to the sea?” “What’s that?” “Have you ever been to the sea?” “What’s that?”), and some of it is fresh (Lona observes that the boundaries of the forest, represented by designer Silvie Deutsch as a wraparound, zigzaggy web of white fabric, form “a wall of string theory and dark matter”).
Holding all the disparate fragments together is the haunting choral music: songs in tight and sometimes eerie harmonies (and as varied as “Why Don’t You Fall In Love With Me?” and an excerpt from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”), hypnotic humming, rhythmic breathing and panting, clapping, plus the occasional beating on a brass gong.
Rogers’ artistic inspiration was Poland’s Teatr ZAR, which retells ancient religious tales through equally ancient Eastern European musical forms; she traveled to Poland to train with ZAR and chose the Estonian tale as the source for her first venture into their form of theater-making.
San Francisco experienced ZAR’s work when the troupe performed here recently, but Cutting Ball has made the style its own.
“Tontlawald” is equal parts confusing and compelling. Although only a little more than an hour long, it’s off-puttingly slow at times. But at other times, the mystery of it all is mesmerizing.
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes March 11
Tickets: $10 to $50
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.cuttingball.com