Posts Tagged ‘puppets’

Review – The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – Wattle and Daub at New Diorama Theater

November 5, 2015

I wasn’t planning on writing this up, since I saw the second of its two performances at the Suspense Festival, but since they announced before the show that it is at the start of a tour … I will go ahead and throw my two cents in. I mean, I am (as a reviewer) a specialist in both puppetry and (to a lesser extent) opera … who better to provide an opinion?

Let’s be honest, although it was billed as “a monstrous chamber opera,” I did NOT take this seriously and thought it was a metaphor for an intimate show with a grotesque topic. No, I was quite wrong: Tarrare is very much an opera, performed with Bunraku-esque puppets, and sung by real live humans right there on stage (with a violinist and pianist providing accompaniment). I was not expecting singing, and I was not expecting it to go for 1:45 (with a 20 minute interval). And, while I was expecting Tararre (the puppet) to eat a bunch of strange things, I was not expecting him to choke them down like a cat hawking up a hairball, or, indeed, for him to vomit them back up again. This show was hard on the stomach.

Still, this unusual story, of am 18th century French man who was an sideshow attraction and spy, was an excellent choice for this format; no real actor could manage the feats Tarrare drew notoriety for, and the availability of actors with detachable ribcages and debilitating medical conditions is not as strong as one might expect even in London. So while Tarrare is being tortured in a (?) Prussian jail, we get to see him shit out the evidence (“He’s shitting/He’s shitting” definitely an opera lyric for the bucket list); and when he is with his sideshow friends, we get to hear two fantastic duets for conjoined twins (also a bucket list item in the opera world), which made me think that perhaps Geek Love might be a good choice for this group to take on next. Creatures in jars that can become singing and dancing parts of the cast is the kind of thing you’d expect only in puppetry; lead characters eating and vomiting up cats likewise benefitted from not being done by fleshly actors.

Musically, I found this actually quite digestible, with interesting falsetto singing from the two men (Daniel Harlock and Michael Longden) that didn’t quite hit the countertenor level of quality but which was still very serviceable, despite starting out a bit unintelligible: I wished for supertitles or a printed lyrics sheet.

But, you know, how was it as a PUPPET show? For me, despite the occasionally irritating sightlines (even from row 5, which unlike row 2 was elevated), the puppet movement was flawless: even the elongation and retraction of the necks of the twins had its own logic, and the shuffling of the fat baby puppet was utterly engrossing. Meanwhile the artistry of the puppets and various puppet bits was high quality and had a very finished, thought-out look to it; we were not fixed too strongly in history but were locked right in to humans with emotions that, in fact, transcended their highly limited physical forms – captured well in their faces, words and bodies.

Although my suspicion is that Tarrare the Freak will actually be continuing its evolution as it starts its tour, it is well worth seeing even in its current form. I’m glad I made the effort and I hope it does well as it reaches more audiences.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015 at the Suspense Festival in London.)

Mini-Review – Slapdash Galaxy: 3D! – BunkPuppets at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

August 26, 2013

With way too much on offer at the Fringe, I was pleased to find one show that stood up and said, “See me!” Yes, the combination of shadow puppets, space pirates, and a 3D finale meant that Slapdash Galaxy was at the top of my list of shows to see at the Fringe.

The performance was done as a one-man effort (with occasional help from the audience’s shadows): we had a sort of mad Gepetto making puppets out of devices placed on his hands, his thumbs making their mouths. He’s built them so their eyes could blink and their eyeballs move: with just two moving parts he was able to create a huge range of emotions.

The story was of two brothers forced to leave their home planet and seek a new home amongst the stars …with their magic fish. (I thought it seemed a bit like the background of Superman …excepting the fish.) You’d think a tiny spaceship on a stick wouldn’t be very convincing, but with the help of a little smoke and the circular screen for the people puppets (like a port hole), I was bought in. The puppeteer mocked his medium (especially when accidents occurred), but the jokes made it all easier to get connected to the story without getting too caught up in any lack of verisimilitude.

While I thought the peak of the action was going to be when the elder brother fought off a tentacled spider (nicely brought to life by an audience member) thanks to GIANT SMOKE RINGS which I really thought were the height of puppetry special effects, in fact, it got even better at the end, when 3D glasses and red and blue black lights turned the shadows into A PIRATE SHIP IS FLYING IN THE AUDIENCE. Which was awesome. And there was a space zoo and a happy ending. Win!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, August 25th, 2013. There is a final show today.)

Review – War Horse – National Theater at the New London Theatre

October 25, 2012

Am I the last person in London to see War Horse? Given that it opened in 2007, it seems like the answer is “yes,” but it can’t possibly be true, or it wouldn’t be booking at the New London Theater through October 2013, and people wouldn’t keep coming to my site looking for cheap deals to see it. I’ve been wanting to see it for all of this time, and I’ve carefully kept myself away from spoilers in anticipation of seeing it. I mean, horses! Puppets! Horse puppets! It seemed like the kind of play I could really, really enjoy … but not the kind I could see on a budget. (I’ve only seen offers twice and the show constantly is sold out, so my advice is, if you want to see it for cheap, shop far in advance for the restricted view seats, such as circle A14 and A15, only £10.)

So, we’re looking at a show that, if I was going to see, I was going to need to fork over some serious dough for, since it’s supposed to be spectacular and so I actually wanted to NOT have a restricted view. And here you are, at Life in the Cheap Seats, and I’m telling you there aren’t any deals to be found, and what you’ve got to want to know is, is it worth it? (For the record, my tickets were £65, and they were a birthday present, so they WERE cheap … for me! But I waited all of this time to go because I couldn’t afford anything the year it came out, and I couldn’t convince myself to pay full price, and it never came up at TKTS, and even Graham Roberts of Great Tickets was only ever able to save about £2 a ticket. So I asked for it as a birthday present, and I received.)

Rather disappointingly, I need to report that five years after it opened, War Horse continues to have a strong emotional impact and shows no signs of flagging commitment from the cast. We know it’s about a boy and his horse and World War I, right, so no spoilers there … but I wasn’t expecting such a lyrical look at life in rural Devon before the war, or that so much attention would be spent on making Albert’s family and their struggles on their farm so vibrant. And I had thought it was told through the eyes of the horse … but it’s not. The main horse, Joey, is followed throughout the story, but we simply follow his experiences, which almost always have a human focus and never turn into silly anthropomorphism. There is no horsey thoughts spoken through a narrator (I was SO worried about this), and Joey stays a horse, responding in a horsey way … there is never a moment which I thought to be unsuited to the natural behavior of a (well-loved and trusting) horse. Would he react to gunfire and the realities of battle the way he did? Well, that I can’t say, but what I saw made it all seem quite natural.

A lot has been made of the puppets and, well, if you read me a lot, you’ll note that I write about puppets more than most theater bloggers. The War Horse full sized horse puppets did have a stunning range of movement – I’ll never buy their running motion (and walking wasn’t particularly great), but kicking and most normal horse stuff (like pulling a cart) was quite good, and by the time we got to the climactic first act “bet” scene, I’d become pretty vested in Joey, no longer reading him as a pile of sticks being manipulated by three puppeteers but as a horse (as represented on stage, much like “Albert” was a grown man playing a boy). And the fight scene with him and another horse was really done just extremely well. I was also pleased to see there were many other puppets in the show, from the birds that built atmosphere in the opening scene, to the comic goose, to the tragic one-man horse/human puppets that represented the cavalry and quite dramatically showed that the age of man and horse in war had come to an end just as Joey had been called up to a “higher” duty than pampered farmhorse.

WELL! So where does that leave you? I cried occasionally and without shame during this show, and wept hard enough at the end that I had to wipe my tears on my sleeve. All that and I’d just spent nearly three hours (time flew by, I hadn’t even noticed how long it had been) watching a bunch of sticks making friends with a guy earning a paycheck on stage. Total suspension of disbelief, people, and I loved every minute of it, even the songs, even the German cavalryman. I could tell, though, that there were some _might_ bad seats at the New London, but still, if good story telling and compelling theater is what your looking for, Warhorse really delivers. It may be the last present I ever get from my husband (more sniffling and sadness), but it was a wonderful gift.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 12th, 2012. The show never seems to end. Buy ahead if you want to buy cheap.)

Review – La Maledicion de Poe (The Curse of Poe) – Teatro Corsario at Southbank Center

January 16, 2011

Nobody that knows me could have been surprised that, upon reading the following tweet, my next thought was to fire up my browser and buy a ticket to this event: “Step into the dark & thrilling world of Edgar Allen Poe with Teatro Corsario’s award-winning ‘puppets of terror’ http://j.mp/feiXR8 .” Edgar Allen Poe and puppets, Grand Guignol-style? Sign me up, and thank you to Southbank Center for alerting me to this show. I mean, the title “2011 International Mime Festival” really doesn’t lead you to expect puppets, right? I would have never even read the program of shows. The online description was even more tantalizing: “Teatro Corsario’s award-winning ‘puppets of terror’ have tingled spines across Europe. Not for the faint-hearted! Suitable for ages 12 and over” – with a picture of a puppet burying an axe in another. And it was only one hour long! It all sounded like a perfect Sunday afternoon for me.

It was my first time at the Purcell room, which is actually a bit of an irritating venue because of the fact the seats are not staggered, which meant I had to keep leaning to the right to see the action during the three scenes where the characters were prone in the front part of the stage. Grr. And I’m also a bit grumpy as they delayed the start of the show by about 15 minutes; not deadly but irritating.

That said, let’s get to the meat of the matter: how was the show? How were the puppets? Was it terrifying? First, to the puppetry; this was done as a sort of bunraku, only with the puppeteers dressed in black velvet with hoods and, I think, occasionally operating behind curtains. I could only rarely see them, if I was looking at some brighter object; while normally I try to see what the puppeteers are doing, in this case I felt it was better to respect their clear desires to remain wholly unseen and just watch a show in which, as it appeared, doll like creatures were moving about on stage unsupported by the human hand.

The puppets themselves were pretty cool, though they seemed …. well, somewhat bizarre. There were a few major characters – Edgar, Annabel (Annabel Lee), her mother, Edgar’s grandparents, a policeman, a drunkard, and a monkey … probably about 3 feet tall each. They weren’t the kind of puppets that made you marvel at their craftsmanship, but they were good and professional, not cheap, and each puppet had its own personality.

Of course, being a “horror” puppet show, we had a few special puppets, in this case two old people who had been sliced to death by the monkey and a woman who’d been accidentally axed by her husband. They were deliciously gruesome and perfect illustrations to the Poe stories they meant to tell (“Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Black Cat”), but they were NOT appropriate viewing for ten year olds and I think the women who hustled their kids out thirty minutes in were deeply regretting their purchases. I also loved the evil monkey, who formed a much bigger character than I remember from reading Poe; he was a force of anarchy.

The story itself, well, I’m afraid the love story of Edgar and Annabel was rather limp, and the presence of her mother not very effective. In this, I think Teatro Corsario worked too hard to take too many small stories and blend them together; while the final image of death and Annabel Lee’s grave was quite good the story itself was just not there, and the whole thread with Edgar being chased by the policeman who’s trying to blame him for his grandparents’ deaths was incoherent. Fortunately, the free program sheet explained the entire story (such as it was), which really, really helped in my attempts to impose continuity on the narrative; but I think three distinct story lines would have worked much better.

However, cramming it all into one hour is a bit of a trick, and I didn’t actually get bored at any point, so there must have been something going right. I could recognize the problems but still have a good time, and I got what I came for: scary puppet theater with bonus killer monkey. And how often can you say that, especially of a cold London January Sunday?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, January 16th, 2011. It continues through Wednesday January 19th.)

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 – Teatro dei Pupi (Marionette/Puppet Theater) Syracuse/Siracusa (Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi) and Palermo (Puppet Museum and Vicenzo Argento e Figli)

April 13, 2009

While I didn’t make it to any plays per se in the last week, I did make it to not one, not two, but THREE puppet shows while travelling in Siciliy. The first was on Saturday, April 4th, at the Piccolo Teatro Dei Pupi in Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian), on Ortygia Island, where we saw “Orlando al Giardino INcantato di Drogantina.” The second was Wednesday, April 13th, in Palermo at the International Puppet Museum (Museo internazionale delle Marionette), which was showing “Dama Rovenza assedia Parigi”. Finally, we made it to Opera dei Pupi di Vincenzo Argento e Figli on Sunday, April 12th (Easter Sunday!).

Guessing that most of you haven’t been to a Sicilian puppet show, I’m going to fill in a little background. First, there are two active styles (Palmeterian and Catanian), which is a big deal to the Sicilians but won’t make much of a difference to the uninitiated (differences have to do with puppet size and the ability of a puppet to draw a sword or otherwise not have a sword in its hand) – they both are enjoyable for similar reasons. Second, the “stories,” as such, are drawn from traditional Medieval troubador tales, and typically involve Orlando/Roland, Orlando’s love, Angelica, and possibly Rinaldo (Orlando’s friend), one or many Moors, Charlemagne, and a host of other figures. (The story lines seem to pull from every myth ever told, such as Odysseus and King Arthur, as well as a frequently-cited traditional collection of chivalric tales whose name escapes me.) Third, the stories are episodic, by which I mean you’re just going to get a slice of the entire story; if you’re lucky, you may get a summary of what you’re going to see (the Piccolo Teatro and Vincenzo Argento provided these) but what you won’t get is an ending unless you manage to watch a cycle all the way through. The summary is important because, fourth, the story will be told in Sicilian. However, this may not matter too much because, fifth, the stories are primarily set-ups for battle scenes, and it’s not too hard to figure out what’s going on when a puppet gets sliced in half or has its head whacked off. Sixth, the theaters are fairly intimate, the cost is low (7 euros in Syracuse and 12 for each of the shows in Palermo), and they only last and hour, and with all of the stomping and fighting they are really a good time.

So, on to a proper review. The Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi in Siracusa was showing “Orlando in Drogantina’s Enchanted Garden.” The theater holds about thirty people in total and is located off a tiny alley five minutes from the Piazza Archimede (showtime was at 6:30 PM) and probably sells out pretty regularly. This was ultimately my favorite of the shows that I saw, partially because of the variety of the puppets and the fact that there was no amplification used for the voices, but also because of the considerable coherence of the storyline. A literal reading of the story would be: Orlando helps retrieve a man’s young son from a giant; fights a creature that acts and looks rather like the Sphinx; is imprisoned by another giant (who finishes ding from his wounds after trapping Orlando in a cage, most awesome); is freed by a sassy monk; fights a cyclops; then finally drinks a potion that puts him under the spell of Dragontina, who wants to add him to her collection of men (statues) in her garden. (There is also a side story about Angelica and her father, a king who wants to marry her to someone who is not Orlando, but this does not distract much from the main action.) However, this is very dry. Let me instead relate to you my impressions as I watched it:

Wow, cool, he looks great! Why do they keep stomping every time Orlando walks on stage? Hah, great fight! But why was Orlando fighting a Klingon, and why was the Klingon armed with a piano leg? Hey, did that monk just change clothes and come back as Angelica’s maid? NONE SHALL PASS! So, what, Orlando is too stupid to answer the sphinx’s riddle? What is that other knight doing there? DEMONS! DEMONS! HA HA HAH! Ooh, more stomping, another fight! Wait, is that the end?

As you can see, I thought this was really a great time even without really being able to follow the dialogue. Fights don’t really need translations; awesome puppets (every company makes their own) are enjoyable on their own, especially in limited doses like this (and when you have really crazy ones like demons, giants, and dragons); and all of the noise and special effects kept me pretty focused on stage even though the battles (whack whack whack) were fairly rote.

On later reflection, I realized that this company was actually of the Catanian style, as the puppets were pretty much forced to hold swords at all time, but what I was more interested in was that the puppets’ sword arms were operated by rods instead of by strings like for traditional marionettes. This, apparently, is why they call these “pupi” and not really marionettes. The rods make it possible for the puppets to really fight hard with each other, and I was kind of surprised when I realized how much whacking their shields and armor probably take over time. (I was also impressed when I realized that in addition to carving, painting, and dressing the puppets, the puppet company also has to make their armor – quite a range of skills in one house!) The rod puppet is the style for all of the Sicilian puppets, even the ones that are holding a rod (such as a magician) or a cup (Dragontina’s servant) or nothing at all (Angelica and her father). Compared to the Carter Family Marionettes in Seattle (the company whose puppetry I am most familiar with), these puppets seemed fairly crude – their mouths and eyes didn’t move, and they couldn’t make any hand gestures at all. I enjoyed myself nonetheless.

The two shows I saw in Palermo followed pretty much the same story, in which Rolando, under orders from Charlemagne and in Paris, has to fight a piles of Saracens to get the hand of Angelica. The Puppet Museum’s tale had Rolando inadvertently killing the sister of his best friend (who was fighting, God knows why, but perhaps if we’d made it in on time we’d have known); the Argento e Figli show has Orlando fighting with his friend Rinaldo for her. Both shows featured huge battles against Saracens, which resulted in a wide variety of dismemberments and a pile of dead bodies on stage; both featured magicians speaking with demons (which/who otherwise didn’t figure in the action); both had dragons (NO idea why, but Vincenzo Argento won this battle as his dragon puffed smoke out of his nose); both had music (which wasn’t in the Piccolo Teatro, as best I recall); both had Charlemagne and took place in Paris.

My thought is that the puppets created by Vincenzo Argento were superior to the Puppet Museum’s, but that the presentation of the Puppet Museum was better because of the use of a live player piano for accompanying music. Argento used recorded music, including “The Blue Danube,” which went over well with his audience, but I felt like the amplified voices were distracting (especially since this wasn’t done consistently for all characters). The player piano used for the fight scenes made them feel especially mad, and I really got into it. Now, Argento had a better space – the very high ceilings kind of took away atmosphere at the puppet museum, though the broad space meant there were no interrupted sight lines.

Overall, however, all three of these shows were a good time, and I think they added greatly to my trip. I will happily go see more the next time I am there, or if one comes to my home town. (I might have even managed more shows if I’d seen this very thorough listing or read this article, but I had enough to do with figuring out hotels, cars, and public transportation that I did not have much luck finding information before I left about what I might be able to see while I was there.)