Puppets are magical and creepy creatures. I read an essay once that described them as totally theatrical, because a puppet’s life and meaning (unlike a living actor’s) comes exclusively through performance: Without a puppet-master and an audience, all you have is a pile of sticks and cloth.
Or is it?
That’s the question (or at least one of the questions) that Basil Twist asks in his puppet production of the ballet Petrushka. Set to a score by Stravinsky, the ballet is a tragic tale about marionnettes in a Russian circus. A Clown (Petrushka) . . .
a lovely Ballerina . . .
and a Moor . . .
obey their masters’ strings as they dance before the circus-going audience — but once the performance is finished and they’re tossed into their box, they come alive as real beings. Petrushka shakes in rage at his enslavement to the puppet strings, and he yearns for the love of the lovely Ballerina. The Ballerina is repulsed by his odd appearance and clownish behavior and seduces the Moor. Petrushka jealously interrupts their raptures and is pursued — then stabbed in the back — by the enraged Moor. Petrusha’s lifeless pile of sticks and cloth falls to the stage, but the audience sees his freed spirit flitting joyfully toward freedom. The end.
It’s a lovely story with wonderful music. I would love to see a pairing of the ballet with the opera I Pagliacci.
With puppets, it takes on a whole new significance. You see just how exhilarating and expressive great puppetry can be, even as the puppets are railing against their puppetmasters. And the final escape to freedom? It’s only an illusion, because that escaping spirit is as much a puppet as the corpse he left behind. The great thing is, by the time it happens, the audience is willing to believe it’s real, that the poor little man really did escape to greater happiness after all.
I was lucky enough to see all of this last night at the Shakespeare Theatre’s staging of Basil Twist’s Petrushka. Basil Twist is one of the preeminent puppeteers in the U.S. I’d seen his work in the Broadway production of The Addams Family (he did Thing and the monster in the basement) and in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (he consulted on the underwater puppets), and apparently he’s done a lot of other really interesting work. So much so, that several local theaters are putting on a Basil Twist festival that will run for the next month or so and showcase four of pieces. Last night was the opening night of both Petrushka and the festival in general — which meant it was the place to be among the DC theatre crowd. All the theatre critics were there to review it, as were various other local theatre celebs to mingle and be seen.
All of this played out well for me. The people-watching was better than usual, what with the various mucky-mucks running around. I ended up sitting next to Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre (who was a great audience member — super attentive and responsive, his attitude while watching actually helped me get more out of the performance that I otherwise might have). And, best of all, we were treated to a surprise “behind the scenes” demonstration of how the puppetry worked. During the performance, all we saw was a gilded frame in which the puppets moved about in a very shallow and bright field of light. Well, in the darkness behind that field of light was an army of puppeteers — at least three per puppet — controlling various body parts of the puppets. Normally you had one person doing the feet, another doing the arms, and another doing the torso and head. Impressive enough when you have just one puppet. But then imagine puppets doing ballet lifts and sword fights and seductive embraces! It was like a moving jigsaw puzzle of puppeteers in black velvet jumpsuits as they climbed over and through each other or passed off the various puppet parts to ensure a seemless movement by the puppet. It was pretty amazing. (And, interestingly enough, seeing the puppeteers actually enhanced my appreciation of the puppets — I kind of wish I could have seen them throughout the play.)
(You’ll be hearing more about Mr. Twist if I can get tickets to the other performances in the festival.)