Review – Marionette “Out of the Heart of Darkness” – Movingstage at the Puppet Barge

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Last night was my one and sadly only visit to a Suspense Puppetry Festival event; though I love puppets, I only heard about it after my theater calender had pretty solidly filled up. My choice was Movingstage Marionette Company’s “Out of the Heart of Darkness.” I thought it would be great to see such a seminal work of literature on the small stage: imagining Marlon Brando (of Darkness redo “Apocalypse Now”) at 1/10th size cracked me up.

But I also wanted to go because my husband has a fascination with colonial Africa and the way the West wrecked the culture and the lives of the people living there (reading books like King Leopold’s Ghost and Casualty of Empire), some of which I’ve absorbed. This production, set deep in the heart of blood diamond country, had full awareness of the literary background, the colonial baggage, and the modern day tragedies of the Congo. The frame was the wife of exiled dictator Mobuto Sese Seko asking the narrator to aid her in getting her hands on her family’s frozen assets; and the enigmatic man Kurtz, at the heart of the story’s orbit, runs a diamond concern with the ruthlessness so many in this position, in that land, have displayed.

Sadly, the production never succeeded in conveying the mystique of Kurtz in a compelling way, despite the fact that most of the characters spoke about him at length; this left it all feeling a bit like a “waiting for Godot” where after the big buildup you actually do find Godot and he’s about as impressive as the Wizard of Oz. On the other hand, perhaps Wizard is a better comparison altogether, as both stories are really about the journey and the changes wrought in the travellers by taking it; the human inciting the trip is a bit of an afterthought. I am convinced, however, that Kurtz is in no way meant to be an afterthought. I will have to read Conrad to be sure. And the overall effect was really diminished by having all of the dialogue and music provided as a recording. I realize that getting the right effects for this show (about five male characters and two female) must have been difficult with a troupe consisting of about four women and one man – but the recording took away the spontanaeity of the show and really created barriers to engagement with the story for me.

That said, I must praise the technical execution of this show. Aside from the lovely puppets and their graceful manipulation, the show also had the best set design I’ve seen on the small stage – a lovely series of fore, back, and middle ground set pieces, with a backdrop that could change color to express mood (not surprising for regular theater but notable for puppets). In addition, there was a fun drop in the shape of binoculars to show the audience what the narrator was seeing, and some silliness involving the bottom half of puppets dancing. Finally, I have to especially commend them for depicting Kurtz as a puppet with an eye hole bored straight through his head – the otherworldly feeling this created nicely captured his disconnection with reality.

In short, this was a good evening, but not a brilliant one, good for lovers of puppets, Africa, or Joseph Conrad. I do hope that next year there is another puppet festival and I’ll have a chance to pick from a series of shows like this one again.

(“Out of the Heart of Darkness” continues through Sunday, November 8th, 2009.)

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