Review – The Odyssey – Paper Cinema at Battersea Arts Center

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Back in the days when I was a Seattle resident, my shadow puppeteer of choice was Scot Auguston, whose low-tech retelling of tales both unique and bizarre kept me coming back year after year (just say the phrase “naughty taties” and see me collapse with laughter). His work (when I saw it) was done through the modern, yet low tech medium of the “overhead projector,” with “sets” drawn with colored markers and simple cut-out silhouette puppets manipulated with visible hands. No sticks, no strings, no screens, but still a world of its own created through light and sound and a barrel full of imagination.

This was the experience I was hoping for when I bought tickets to the Paper Cinema’s Odyssey rather shortly after getting a flyer in the mail from Battersea Arts Center about the production. Live animation for adults? Yes please! And, I’m pleased to say, it really delivered.

The room, as we walked in, was set up with several musical instruments (piano/drums/violin) as well as old standbys of the silent cinema such as a metal sheet (labelled “thunder”), a drum with ball bearings in it (good for ocean noises), and a saw. A partially drawn screen hung in the center rear of the stage; despite sitting in the front to the far side, I was able to see all well from this position. The performers consisted of a multi-talented group of five, three primarily musicians (though the violinist and percussionist pitched in elsewhere), two of whom were solely projection artists. As it started, lead artist and bearded Odysseus stand-in Nicholas Rawling drew on an overhead projector that shared screen space with some background images generated by Irena Stratieva. The effect of watching someone working working with ink on a screen reminded me very much of the Eurovision entry with the sand paintings I’d seen a while back, and I had a brief fear that I might be killed ded with naff. But Rawling’s drawings were beautiful and iconic, and nicely set us up for the evening, introducing us to our main characters (bearded Odysseus, Penelope with her star on her forehead, their son Telemachus, and Athena, who got her own special sound effect courtesy of a set of rope-triggered chimes) and getting us ready for the main course …

The rest of the evening was done with the puppeteers in front of two (or three) videoed projections of their live object manipulation (not to me animation but puppetry) work. It was a melange of styles, with traditional shadow puppet tricks (such as moving things backwards and forwards from the screen to make things seem nearer or further away) used regularly, but “new” techniques such as multiple projections (used not just for supertitles but for “effects” like light through leaves). There were also some very special techniques such as having one “puppet” (i.e. a building with a window) brought close to the projector so that its focus went to the back, where another puppet (such as Penelope sewing) could be seen as if it were a movie camera zooming into a scene. And then, not to spoil much I hope, there was a pop-up book – not exactly in any realm of story telling I’ve ever seen in a theater.

The puppetry was great at dealing with some of the more “please add imagination here” scenes such as Odysseus and his men being chased by a giant, his trip to Hades, and the entire scene of the blinding of the Cyclops (gross!). But it handled the simpler scenes just as well, with the wonderfully appropriate (and cleverly made) music slash soundtrack keeping it all moving along nicely. Dare I say … the experience was lyrical.

All of this was done with no words being spoken (though a few appeared on screen – remember, don’t eat the sun god’s cows!), with every move of the cast clearly visible to the audience yet all of the magic still fully intact. I don’t really understand what the separate Telemachus story was that involved him in a bus and on a motorcycle and somehow reading the Odyssey but I didn’t much care; instead I was laughing at the wit of depicting Penelope’s suitors as a pack of wolves and beaming with happiness as I recognized Dawn’s rosy fingers at the start of act three. My companion was likewise delighted with this night of pure enchantment. Based on the number of people who enjoyed Sunday Morning at the Center of the World and The Animals and Children Took to the Street, there is a deep audience for this kind of raw theatrical pleasure, and if you don’t already have tickets, I’m afraid it just may be too late. Still: go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, February sixth, 2012. It continues through February 25th and I see only three dates that are not sold out as I type this. May I say how nice it is to walk out of a show like this knowing you’ve earned the gratitude of another person because you’ve been able to give them a night of magic?)

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One Response to “Review – The Odyssey – Paper Cinema at Battersea Arts Center”

  1. Studioincovent Says:

    Sounds like a good show. And you’re right, it’s so nice when the friend you took with you loved the show! It so makes up for the times when you feel really apologetic!

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