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Ten days of puppetry on the island

Susanne Kennedy

Red Wing Performing Group, Heart of the Andes Red Wing Performing Group, Heart of the Andes
Questions about what defines puppetry or ‘figure theatre’ arose repeatedly in this year’s Ten Days on the Island Festival. When should puppets assume more naturalistic styles, and where does that leave the performers who work alongside them? When is puppetry just a bit of fun and when do our expectations become more complex?

The Heart of the Andes by New York’s Red Wing Performing Group told 2 parallel stories: one about a young boy retreating from a school bully into his picture books; and the other the story of 19th century American painting. This is the 7th in a series of works on sight subtitled “Everyday uses for Sight” and described as a “love letter” to seeing. The homage has a number of frames—miniature worlds, the biological structure of the eye and theories of composition, such as the Dutch grid used by 19th century painters.

Frederic Edwin Church and Winslow Homer are paid particular attention, with one of Church’s paintings providing the title for the show. We are told that opera glasses were worn to fully appreciate his painting. Where Church’s work dealt with frontier themes, Homer’s subjects included rural life, children and play.

Red Wing employ shadow and Bunraku puppetry and manipulate objects in the spirit of a magic show. Heart of the Andes is a series of intricate reveals—using frames, tape measures and beams of light pulled like threads through paintings. These guide the eye and play with the idea of optic distances—blending science lesson and art.

At one point, Hurlin and his puppet interact—the puppeteer’s thoughts echoing around the theatre—suggesting a postmodern take on the form. Objects representing the science of painting are revealed and fetishised. A stylised soil cross-section becomes a chest of treasures containing the artifacts upon which the show hangs: opera glasses, a miniature piano accordion, a tape measure.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs by Tasmania-based Terrapin Theatre, has been reworked from its original 2000 version. Written by Noëlle Janaczewska, it’s a non-linear narrative inspired by the myth of the lost child which has “haunted the Australian imagination since colonisation” (program note).

Most of the changes, in performance style, scripting, projections and music, were intended to make the new version less literal. In 2000, the journey was more character-based—this time the performance was more centred on the emotional world of Carla, the protagonist. The present became ambiguous. Avoiding traditional narrative highs and lows, designer Julia Christie and director Jessica Wilson took on the challenges an actor existing in a puppet world and a character existing in a world of memories to which she can’t directly respond. Carla was directed to be more puppet-like, the goal being to distance her, and resist letting the actor carry all the emotion—thus realising the form’s potential.

The gypsy puppet that makes love to Carla is operated by 3 puppeteers. A tawny exotic, with stumps for legs and dangling genitals, he floats before settling on her. The scene moves from the sensual to the unnerving. Like the cicada puppet and the Indian doll, Carla discovers that bejewelled exteriors often conceal less savoury, if not grotesque, cores as they become confused in her memory.

Michael O’Donohue plays the lepidopterist who cautions Carla about the hazards of traveling through India. He wafts around her unseen, as chilling as her memories and as Carla’s sinister and neglectful parents—Czech style marionettes with gashes for mouths and vacant eyes.

The drama in The Dark was most intense when disconnected. This was a powerful reminder of puppetry’s ability to go where primarily text-based theatre would struggle to escape gratuity. My breath caught when violent kicks were delivered backstage and a tiny puppet convulsed in the foreground. Carla, now adult and helpless still, stood between them. The Dark was an intense and suspenseful journey that challenged its audience by substituting potent sensual layers for conventional narrative principles.

Where Heart of the Andes displayed conventionally masculine preoccupations in its delight in the technical, the structural, and the ‘reveal’, The Dark was feminine in its immersion in the internal terrain of emotion and memory. A haunting emotional landscape was brought to life by Glen Dickson’s projections of deserted rural roads, headlines of lost children, and Ben Sibson’s menacing soundscapes of cicadas.

Urban Safari, a New Zealand company, introduced audiences to the inhabitants of Gondwanaland in the streets of Salamanca and on the sprawling cricket green of Port Arthur’s original settlement. Endangered Kennel Pigs and Cantaloopas were presented in nature documentary format, lead by the breathy commentary of a Steve Irwin/David Attenborough hybrid and full of awestruck kiwi “crikeys.” The puppets were The Lion King-like and galumphed unperturbed on architecturally unsound limbs. It was intriguing to ponder these mutations of familiar forms and speculate on what was going on inside them. How many people were under there? Do hand or foot stilts create those dimensions?

Ferocity built up as the 1 metre Kennel Pigs went about their mating rituals with all the conflict that their name implies. Saggy 3 metre Cantaloopas gangled, apparently benign, until provoked to deliver one of their “lethal kicks.” The show was well chosen free family theatre through which you could drift.

Stories of Faces began with a dust-coated pianist playing an old standup piano in an RSL hall. She is so unobtrusive that no-one suspects she’s anything more than a local fill-in. Then the flourishes begin—growing steadily until she turns to greet the audience in a playful accent. It dawns on the audience that this is not the filler, but the act. Belgian visual artist Horta Van Hoye allows herself to be lead by a tall roll of paper. She elaborately twists, crumples and teases it to produce gentle, ancient faces. The first, a bearded man becomes smitten with his creator. Later, other ‘faces’ are collected from the wings to form a benign ensemble.

The transformations and reveals are pure silliness—a human bouquet, a face hat, a horse becoming a palm tree—as is the final mask installation, at which point I realized my craving for more narrative would not be sated. Perhaps the extended show provided this. For me the title of the work was representative—the performance offered stories of faces, but not characters, and was delightful mainly for Horta’s own facial animation.

Arrivals was a non-verbal work by Mixed Media Productions that employed puppetry, dance, video projection and an original music score. Again, paper featured strongly. The set was created from sheer textured drops of it, moveable cage walls, and a projection screen. Paper is slashed and burst through. A tense flashlight search follows. Houses are meticulously cut out and envy motivates one character to destroy another’s claim. Paper becomes a symbol of reinvention, of fragility of place and home.

A running or climbing puppet—with percussion creating the tension of fleeing—was an intermittent refrain and an aspect of the show I found most moving. Projections were used not so much as embellishment but to say something in their own right. A captive child creates a miniature world, populated lovingly with flecks of paper—the camera allowed us into her imagination. When a cage moves over the camera, there is the sense that her imagination had been trespassed.

While the work began as a show about arrivals in the broadest sense, it gravitated specifically towards the subject of detention centres and refugees during the devising/rehearsal process. The traumas of uprooting, of trying to escape to freedom, the randomness of rules for granting freedom, and the objectification of people, were recurring themes.

The representation of puppetry in this year’s Ten Days festival demonstrated both the present global renaissance, and the many manifestations, of the form.

Ten Days on the Island: Heart of the Andes, Peacock Theatre, March 28-31;The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Terrapin Theatre, Earl Arts Theatre, Launceston, April 4-5, Peacock Theatre, Hobart April 9-12; Stories of Faces, performer/creater Horta Van Hoye, various locations; Arrivals, Mixed Media Productions, Princes Wharf No.1 Shed, Castray Esplanade April 4-5

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 42

© Susanne Kennedy; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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