Fort Worth — Because most of Hip Pocket Theatre’s shows in its 42 seasons have been performed on an outdoor stage, it’s unlikely that the producers have ever committed to one of theater’s oldest traditions: the ghost light, left on after all the other lights have been turned off and every staff member has left the venue for the night.
It’s a courtesy for the ghosts; the theater is full of them.
Hip Pocket doesn’t need one: Co-founder Johnny Simons’ plays have always evoked memories of people who have passed through his life, even when he’s adapting a work of literature of pop culture. That’s one of the many gifts he imbued in his daughter Lake Simons, who grew up at her parents theater and has become a maker of intimate physical theater magic in New York. For about 20 years, she has returned home to Fort Worth each summer for one original production in Hip Pocket’s summer season.
Her latest, Loop the Loop, co-created with partner/collaborator John Dyer, is her most personal yet, its concept instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Simons family and/or the theater that remains the most unique theatrical experience in North Texas.
Using the backdrop of Coney Island, Lake plays a Magician and Jeff Stanfield is Cowboy in this mostly dialogue-less work. Composer and lyricist Dyer, upstage and with his guitar and other instruments, sings the songs and recalls memories. Cowboy represents Michael Joe Goggans, a splinter-thin, longtime HPT player who died between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The Magician is Lake’s mother and Johnny’s wife, Diane, who is living in an assisted care facility because her memory is mostly gone. For the past few seasons, Diane’s smiling face and long, gray hair have been missing at the theater, where she always designed costumes and gave the curtain speech at every performance.
Lake and Dyer use Coney Island as a backdrop because of the transformations the iconic theme park on the beach has undergone throughout the years. “A place of joy and abandon and a place that is not what it used to be,” Lake writes in her director’s notes.
Over the years Lake’s puppetry has become increasingly minimal, from life-like hand-held puppets to found objects, always with the puppeteer in view and in costume, an extension of the object. In Loop the Loop, the hand-held creations are wood cutouts of rabbits (Coney Island used to be overrun with them) and small models of the famous amusement park rides, including Thunderbolt, a carousel, the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump and others.
The ensemble members (Frieda Austin, Jozy Camp, Allen Dean, Jeremy Jackson, Paul Logsdon, Maleka Mahdi, Stephen McCormick, and Elysia Worcester) maneuver them in snaking chains and other choreographed patterns. Arcade games and even fireworks are imaginatively recreated through movement and puppetry.
The magician falls in love, has babies (that would be Lake and her sister, Lorca) and goes through life adding the experiences of hard work, heartbreak, and loss. When Dyer speaks a lyric about the “mind scrambler” ride, it’s a brutal but beautiful gut-punch. In one scene, a series of hats help her recall people and moments from her life.
You don’t have to know about Lake’s mother—you don’t even have to have ever been to Hip Pocket—to understand get that the Magician, a person who has spent a life making others happy, is a character profoundly connected to the actress who portrays her. Another gift she inherited from her father is exceptionally fluid, dancer-like movement and facial expressions that convey childlike wonderment and deep contemplation with ease.
Loop the Loop, a title that appears in a repeat song lyric, references the whirligig of an amusement park ride, but also the never-ending loop of life and the endless memories connected with it.
No need for a ghost light.