Posts Tagged ‘puppet show’

Mini-review (and festival preview) – Lysistrata – Theatrical Niche at the Illuminate Festival

April 20, 2015

A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone doing publicity for the Illuminate Festival, a new event taking place at the Wimbledon Studios (next to the New Wimbledon Theater). The programming looked stunningly broad, from comedy to Shakespeare to new plays to a revamped Lysistrata – their cup ranneth over! And the prices were good, too, £10 a ticket, with a location that was generally underserved for fringe theater. It seemed to me like a worthy effort, though one I was going to have a hard time fitting into my schedule. I realized that the best option for me was going to be Lysistrata, which I’ve been interested in seeing since I first saw Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations (back in the 80s – although they’re from the 90s … the 1890s). I was promised a new translation, with puppets – which all sounded good to me.

Aristophanes’ comedy is about the women of Athens attempting to convince their men to end a long-running war by withholding sex from them, in conjunction with the rest of the women of Greece. Apparently in Greek times there was lots to make fun of about this as people talked presumably a bit more openly about the physical proof of men’s desire – in a way which, as an American, I have a difficult time speaking of even when I’m just typing. I find it hard to imagine this play being done in my homeland, but it seems that things are quite a bit more open here in England and people are able to tolerate performances (occasionally) in which such delicate items are treated as a matter for broad comedy. And in the case of this play, it seems like you may want to call it “broad” comedy, since it’s the women who are running the show from start to finish. We are served up with oral as well as physical humor, with puns galore (the “willy” of the people was a good one) and loads of jokes which were often funny as well as low minded.

However, the beginning of the play – the entire first act – got to such a slow start I questioned if I would make it through to the end. There were only five actors to do everything, and Lysistrata herself (Venetia Twigg) just seemed so virtuous and uptight it seemed hard to believe I was actually at a comedy. I was further brought down by the puppets, which were not very attractive and would have been better served, I think, by being eliminated in favor of just using humans to play 1) people of the other sex 2) old people. Now, this may seem a bit unfair as this was all obviously done on a budget, but I do really love puppets and they were a distraction to me. The fight scenes were both great, though: it’s clear the planning was there, but there was a lack of polish. Fortunately it all came to a head in act two, especially when Cinesias is attempting to convince Myrrhine to sleep with him. Watching the poor men walk around, all but disabled by their erections, had us howling with laughter … Overall, I think it was a good night out, appropriate enough for the price, and it made me feel pretty enthusiastic about the rest of the festival.

(This review is for a perforance that took place on Friday, April 17, 2015. It continues to tour until May 1st.)

Review – Fantastic Mr Fox – Little Angel Theatre

September 22, 2010

Regular readers of my blog (both of you) will know that I’m a puppet theater fan. My enthusiasm started when I was in Seattle and went to the Northwest Puppet Theater regularly; they launched a series of Baroque puppet operas while I was there, which I adored and now miss horribly. I also like Japanese bunraku and kuruma ningyo style puppetry, and my trips to Sicily have been greatly enlivened by the Catanian/Syracusan and Palmiterian “teatro de pupi.”

At any rate, puppets. I love ’em. And I was pleased to have an opportunity to review the Little Angel Theater’s Fantastic Mr. Fox last Sunday – Little Angel is the only puppet theater I know of in London, and they have a solid season packed with lots of new works. I’d only been there once before, but … Roald Dahl, told with puppets? I didn’t know the story, but I wanted to go anyway, and I was able to convince a friend of mine to lend me her six year old daughter, Holly, so I could get the real skinny from the target audience.

WELL this all went very interestingly as my guest did not understand some basic rules of theater going, such as “do not touch the actors,” “do not play on the set, even if it’s the interval,” and “do not run down the aisle when the show is in progress” (which is especially important as the puppets do scenes from within the aisles, thus meaning they must be kept clear for even more than just fire code reasons). But the staff handled it with aplomb, especially the actor manipulating Mrs Fox, who nodded at and interacted with my companion in a way that shot her to the moon.

My thoughts were that the dialogue for the first half of the show was particularly hard to understand; the three farmers just didn’t project well. And the story … well, it was very odd! I guess (as another friend of mine pointed out) adapting a tale so based on digging was a bit of a challenge; I think the way the set morphed to show the changes to the foxes’ dwelling (as they dug and were dug at) was very innovative. I was also quite amused by the ending (as I didn’t know the story), in which Mr Fox appeared to set up a socialist utopia for the animals; perhaps he will only reappear when the final ghost of Maggie Thatcher leaves this earth (no chance under this administration then).

I was sorry, though, that except for my interpretation of the final message, this play didn’t really go for the sly insertion of adult-level improvised jokes that really enlivened the Northwest Puppet Theater’s works; this play was very straight and (in my eyes) very much aimed straight at its elementary school audience and less so at their parents (though I did enjoy the artistry of the puppets themselves). With that in mind, let’s see Holly’s review of the show: “I watched Fantastic Mr Fox and it was great. It was so fun! There were so many puppets. There was badgers, rabbits, weasels, moles and foxes. So I want to go there again soon!”

That’s it then: the jokes that sail over the heads of six year olds were not missed and those who the show was meant for found it, dare I say, “Fantastic” (though I have my doubts about the wisdom of having an interval when out with those of a limited attention span). And there’s no doubt I’ll be back again in November for Alice in Wonderland; Little Angel is a real treasure and we’re lucky to have them here.

(This review is for the 2:30 performance that took place on Sunday, September 19th, 2010. The show continues through November 7th; see web site for show times, and note that it is not recommended for those four years old or younger.)

Review – La Clique – London Hippodrome

October 4, 2008

Last night, on a whim, I took my sister and husband to the opening night of La Clique at the London Hippodrome. To be honest, I was somewhat motivated by the fact that since it was opening night, I could get a “scoop” on my blog. Now, I’m not so low that I’ve gone to writing stories with search keywords like “Britney Spears Naked!” or “9-11 Conspiracy Revealed!” in this blog in order to improve my traffic (see this article by Charlie Brooker to get the joke), but I have to realize there’s a lot to be said about writing a review of a show early in the run rather than the day before it closes. So I pinched my nose, forked over 30 quid a pop for tickets (standing at 10 was a big “no”; I was hoping for the 20 quid “stool” seats, but they’d all gone by 6 PM the night of the show), and in we went, moths flying out of my pocket as we walked in the door. (NOTE: Friday 10:30 PM tickets can be had for £10 with promo code STA: book at LoveTheatre.com.)

Venue first, as I figure no one has really been in the Hippodrome unless they were clubbing in the late 80s: the entrance is right on the corner of the block of buildings on the east side of Charing Cross’s Leicester Square tube exit, and it’s most remarkable to see this big staircase heading off of the sidewalk in a place that’s only ever been a flat wall before. Up we went into a sort of reception area, with clots of people milling in front of a desk where we needed to exchange our tickets for wristbands indicating which area we’d paid to sit in (yes, it’s not reserved seating – we went in half an hour before showtime so we could get better seats than we would if we showed up closer to showtime). To the left was a bar area that had all sorts of food (such as pies), so a real dinner could easily be had here (though I preferred my Chinese food dinner at Red Hot, about three minutes up the street); to the right, a coat check area.

Inside the venue there was a circular depressed area seating about 250 people, backed by red curtains; in between the lowered seating area and the curtains was a smallish raised area containing what I think were the extra premium “seats with tables” (with flowers and candles on them) and a grand piano (off to the right); the nicest bar in the house appeared to be on this level, directly across from the curtains, and the seats kind of expanded out “behind” the little circular stage in the middle toward the bar.

Entrance to the venue was all stage left, and we continued on up to the seats and stools area. This was a balcony with four levels of seating, two of them tables (the ones lowest and closest to the stage were reserved, but apparently the second layer of tables would have been fine for people with my level of wristband if we’d been quick), the two further back rows of high backed chairs (which were all moved up to the glassed walls on the edge of our level of balcony to let us better see the action on stage – otherwise the balustrade was right at eye level). Behind all of these was another, less well equipped bar area (no port; wine 3.65 a glass), and a quite expansive ladies’ room. (What can I say, it’s a joy to not have to wait, and with about 15 stalls and a 1940s ambience, it was really much nicer than I expected.) We were too late to get a table, but took our places in the lower row of chairs and to the right of the stage.

If you are thinking of going, my advice is this: stools on the left to the house would be okay; all chairs and tables upstairs have a good view for all of the show; the premium tables downstairs have rather too many views of performer’s backsides; the seats really close to the stage are a DANGER ZONE and likely to result in you getting splashed or inadvertently involved in a performance; the lower seats close to the bar and facing the stage likely have a good view for everything. (I can’t say about the standing room tickets as I’m not sure where these people were shuffled off to.)

The evening opened with Cabaret Decadanse, who presented a puppet singing a disco song – pretty cute, well done, but not compelling for me as the puppetry wasn’t that amazing (I do see a lot of this stuff) and the music was recorded. If someone had been singing, that probably would have done it for me, but it wasn’t, so I sat there going, “Okay, I’m waiting to be sold on this show still!”

The next act was a “veddy English” balancing act, two guys in bowlers and suits, looking like they were fresh out of some Monty Python skit. I think the gag was that one was the butler to the other. Their skit, playing with umbrellas and canes and their hats, was a blast, and when (whoosh!) we suddenly got to see what they looked like under their suits, I was most impressed. Goodness! It’s just not what you expect of an English guy, to be ripped out like that, but then again most English guys don’t stand on each other’s head when they’re trying to share an umbrella, either. (It did make me miss my home town’s Circus Contraption, though – the strong man and the tiny, trusting girl-child just had a really powerful emotional impact on me that these guys couldn’t touch.)

My second favorite act of the night was “Mario, Queen of the Circus,” who juggled and did unicycle stuff while Queen songs were played. I admit, I’m a sucker for Queen, but there’s a lot to be said for acts that are in the small timeframe a rock song admits – you just can’t get bored of what’s happening. More importantly, though, he was a really good juggler – his stuff was timed to the music. I also enjoy the dichotomy of “art” and “rock and roll” – so often this stuff gets all pretentious and fruity and up its ass, but the Queen songs kept it fun and lively. Mario was on three times, and I really enjoyed seeing him every time.

Less exciting was “Captain Frodo,” whose a contortionist. His schtick of being inept kind of put me off of my balance, but he just didn’t put out a persona I felt was compelling. Admittedly, he was up against some very sexy competition (such as Ursula Martinez, the stripping magician – is it really legal to strip down to absolutely nothing in London?), but … I don’t know, maybe it was the sideburns or the mustache. At any rate, I didn’t go for his stuff, and it wasn’t just because watching him dislocate his elbows was hard on the stomach (though my sister had to flat out turn away from the stage).

The best act of the night was David O’Mer, the bathtub aerialist, who did this stuff with two silk rope-things hanging from over the stage where he rolled himself up the ropes just using his incredible muscles (first his arms, then his legs). He was the one who wound up splashing the front rows of the stage, who had a plastic splash curtain laid down in front of them. (This one very gay black guy dropped his and just revelled in getting splashed – I can see where that would have had its appeal!) O’Mer was just totally sexy and really had his act in top nick – there was no laziness or cue-missing, and he was mighty fine to watch. Phwoar! (And for the gents in the audience, if you didn’t have a good time with Ursula Martinez, there was also Yulia Pikhtina, the gorgeous, amazingly coordinated hula hooper, who was so classy I couldn’t believe she was Russian. Miss Behave was also back for another round, but I don’t think that her schtick is really the kind of thing that would get you that special feeling like O’Mer did for me.)

Most of the performers were on at least twice, which was good for some acts (Mario) but less so for others (Cabaret Decadanse’s “I Simply Cannot Do It Alone” from Chicago was awful, partially because you couldn’t see the performers leg and feet very well, but also because the puppet was dressed so cheaply that it just wasn’t compelling to watch in any way.) But in summary, it was a fun night but worth more like 20 quid rather than 30, and I would recommend it as really fun to do with a bunch of people after work.

(This review was for opening night, Friday, October 3, 2008. Apologies for the less than stellar writing, but I’m off to Italy in two hours and just can’t spare much time!)

Review – Will Tuckett’s “Faeries” – Royal Opera House, Clore Studio

July 14, 2008

After trying for weeks to find a time when my only friend with a child could accompany me (with her daughter) to see Will Tuckett’s “Faeries”, I was delighted when I got a phone call offering me a pair of free tickets with no strings attached (other than that I not post my review until today). A lot of people wouldn’t perhaps just be wandering around central London with nothing to do an hour before curtain time, but there I was, and I was completely willing to drop everything and run over to the Royal Opera House to see a show … for free! (How did my friend know that I’d be likely to do that? I must have a reputation …)

I have to interrupt the rest of the review with the reason why getting this call meant so much to me. I had known about this show for four months and had been trying to buy tickets for it when they went on sale but was unable to come up with a day that worked … because the ROH required each party have a child in attendance and in all of London I am only aquainted with one child, who would have to be brought up from Worcester Park in order to allow me to attend the show. What is up with the ROH saying you need to have a child with you to attend? Are they worried that the show will attract pedophiles, or is this just a blatant attempt at discriminating against the childless? As a woman who does not have any children nor, indeed, any relatives in the entire country, I found this policy onerous and incredibly unfair to me, a childless person. It’s bad enough that I can’t sit down and have my lunch in Coram Fields, which is only a block away, but to be forbidden from attending an art event because I can’t access a child? In 10 years of attending puppet and children’s theater this has never been an issue before. If I want to attend, I should be allowed to attend, understanding that there will be many children in the audience (and frankly they were better behaved than MANY audiences I’ve been stuck in the middle of, especially at the ballet. Must we talk during the overture?). Otherwise, if they want to be sure a certain number or percentage of children attend, they should just reserve seats for them rather than forbidden adults, flat out, from attending without children.

Walking into the show I had little idea of what to expect. I was thinking: the guy who designed the really cool looking Wind in the Willows ballet! Fairies! The … er … guy who choreographed the Pinocchio ballet I didn’t care for so much … well, maybe I should forget about that bit. At any rate, I was pretty excited about seeing a brand new ballet, as I always am.

However, it had never occurred to me what the plot might actually be about. In this case, it was sort of a Railway Children story, about two London kids sent to the countryside during the war. The girl gets split up from her brother and winds up running around in the woods and fields … and of course meets fairies. She makes friends with one, gets caught by another, and eventually gets caught up in needing to defeat an evil fairy “who wants to steal our freedom” (or something like that).

Walking into the hall, the atmosphere was good … there were period-dressed “Station Agents” handing out identification tags to the kids, and on stage was a fairly large puppet playing an old woman telling the kids where to sit and hurrying them along (a nice way to establish the puppets as “people” early in the performance). We took a seat near the very back of the stage so we wouldn’t have to get shoved off to the side, as everyone that sat down in the middle was asked to move to the edge of the risers – a bit of a punishment for people who came in on time!

Though the human cast initially seemed to be around ten people, I think there were only 2 actual speaking human roles, and after Our Heroine ran off, it was really just her and a phalanx of people operating the puppets. Unlike bunraku (or even Avenue Q), the people manipulating the puppets were all dressed in period clothing, which distracted a bit from the action. I thought that the woman with a red and white band on her head was going to turn out to be a fairy queen, but eventually it seemed that she was, really, just a woman wearing a scarf knotted on her head as if she were cleaning the house. I did like the fact that the people manipulating the Evil Fairy were dressed as soldiers, but otherwise the clothing didn’t add to the narrative. I don’t think it put the kids off, though, so maybe I’m just too picky.

The puppets were, in my mind, the best thing about this show. They came in a variety of sizes and took full advantage of their ability to be free of the normal laws of gravity and, er, bodily coherence, that human actors are limited by. This, of course, made it easy for the fairies to fly (and levitate), but they could also just stand sideways, or have their heads and tails come off and go on their own adventures. I also loved the detailing of the smallest puppets, all little fairies. I wanted to just pop them in my pocket and take them home with me. (Nice work to whoever designed these – brilliant!) And they were actually handled as characters, with their own voices, movement styles, and emotions – important aspects in making an object take on life and make it possible to focus on the face of the puppet instead of the person who was speaking for it.

The dance, however, wasn’t particularly interesting, and I wonder if the kids liked it or even cared. The scene where Our Heroine was dancing with her fairy friend was good, but the parts where, perhaps, emotion was being expressed were … I don’t know, meaningless. To me, they didn’t add to the narrative and just weren’t interesting to watch – they just seemed obligatory. While I went to see the dance, because that is what I love, and I enjoyed the show, if I had been expecting to enjoy it because of the dance I would have considered this show a complete failure. However, I’m open to enjoying any theatrical experience on its own merits, and as I enjoyed the other aspects of the show quite a bit, I can’t say it was a bad show because the dance was bad/boring/unimpressive.

Note that the evil fairy was actually scary enough that he was making the kids in the audience cry. I’m curious if they were going to try to lighten him up or just roll with it. For really little kids, he could easily be the incarnation of bogeyman nightmares.

So, overall this wasn’t a bad show, but the degree of excitement I had about going to see it wasn’t really matched by what was presented on stage. That said, the children in the audience were really caught up in what was going on and didn’t complain or barely make a squeak for the entire 75 minutes, so clearly something is working well. If you’re taking a kid to this, they will probably enjoy themselves, but if you were feeling sad because the ROH didn’t want your childless presence at this show, cry no tears – there will be other shows you will probably enjoy more. Me, I’m going to have to question whether or not I want to see Will Tuckett’s shows anymore – this makes the second one I’ve seen that left me flat, and good puppetry just isn’t enough to console me for indifferent dance. I’d rather just see a straight puppet show and keep my expectations set appropriately. Speaking of which, the Metro has £10 off top priced tickets to see Monkey: Journey to the West (the opera!), though it’s only good on matinees for Thrusday July 24 (2:30 PM) and Friday July 25 (4 PM). I don’t have £65 to lay out on theater seats for any show, but if you do, book through the ROH website (www.roh.org.uk/monkeyjourney). Hopefully Monkey will be a show where my expectations are finally met!