Both of these shows were presented as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages Festival in March 2014.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic with puppets by Handspring Puppet Company.
Perhaps as a result of their collaboration with Handspring, Bristol Old Vic presented a version of Dream that connected the characters and their story to objects, humble materials and craftsmanship. The set was an immediate hint that this was not going to be your usual, run-of-the-mill Shakespeare production. Ladders, stools, lattice and paint drops gave the feeling of being in a workshop, and one actor wandered about onstage handling wood and tools with ease.The costumes were rough work clothes, with few differences between the mechanicals and the nobles, while the actors playing Oberon and Titania carried large sculpted masks and in Oberon’s case an oversized jointed hand. The mechanicals used large blocks of wood as props in their rehearsal, which by the final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe had been carved into rough representations of the doomed lovers. Even the woods of Athens were displayed literally–the actors held up planks of wood for the lovers to hide behind and travel through during their scenes.
In keeping with the rough aesthetic, the puppets used for Puck and the other fairies were somewhat motley in style and appearance. Puck was played by three of the mechanicals, each holding a different object (mallet, fork, metal can, etc) that they brought together to form the head, body and appendages of the character. The exact setup might be different each time, but the hobgoblin could move like lightning simply by having all the objects zoom off in different directions, which was very effective whenever Oberon called for his servant. Peaseblossm and company were slightly more grotesque, with exaggerated features and only one or two body parts made from objects similar to Puck. Bottom’s transformation, like the woods of Athens, took Shakespeare’s text quite literally, with an over-the-top visual gag that the actor pulled off with aplomb. The transformation mechanism, along with fully realized versions of Oberon and Titania used in the final dance, were the only puppets that seemed to be created in a woven cane style similar to the War Horse puppets.
There was one small mystery: in the publicity photos for the show, the lovers each had a small puppet of themselves. Onstage, these were nowhere to be seen. I didn’t miss them; it made sense that puppetry was used for the otherworldly characters, with rough imitations by the mechanicals as part of their own play within the play. The large masks and hands made Oberon and Titania larger than life, while Puck’s transformative qualities were superbly created (and recreated) by his collection of objects. This production of Dream brought the audience fully into the darkness and strangeness of the woods and the fairies’ world.
Penny Plain, Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes.
In the Terrace Theater, a smaller scale, yet arguably more epic story was on display in Penny Plain, an original show by Ronnie Burkett from Canada. Set in a future world that is disintegrating fast, the story centers on Penny Plain, an old woman in a boarding house full of odd characters who has only her dog for company. But Geoffrey has decided that he wants to be a man, not a dog and at the beginning of the play heads out into the world, leaving Penny by herself. As news clips are heard that detail the food and money shortages, the environmental disasters and the desperation of humanity, Penny and the rest of the people in the house try their best to survive.
Burkett performed Penny Plain, solo, controlling over 20 marionettes alone or in pairs, around the two levels of the set that depicted the boarding house. Some characters had two different puppets, one to appear on the upper floor and one with longer strings to appear on the lower. The style of both the writing and the puppets was naturalistic, with brilliant touches of the macabre. Burkett switched voices expertly throughout the rapid-fire dialogue, punctuated by heavy pauses. The themes of change, human nature and survival are heavy, but satire helped to undercut the serious tone (a scene with two US refugees from the south was especially delicious). Burkett built the tension in the story expertly, alternating gruesomely funny sequences with poignant conversations until the entire audience was riveted. Directly after the final blackout, I heard someone behind me heave a sigh of relief, as though being released from a magic spell. This show was a brilliant example of the power of pure puppetry.