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I Know What I Like
Penny Francis on Reviewing Puppetry

Having been roving the world for some years in search of good productions which include puppetry, it occurred to me that I had not recently read any articles that proposed a set of criteria for making evaluations of this kind of theatre. As one who regularly makes and transmits the said evaluations I’d like to have at least a few of these criteria listed, for myself as much as for other would-be critics. They would be useful as a yardstick, though hardly a checklist.

An editor of any journal containing reviews must decide on their purpose. In newspapers, they are both a guide to quality and content and an entertainment; in a trade journal like Animations Online they are not only a guide but also a record for aficionados, historians and academics. Therefore, it seems to me appropriate that a descriptive ingredient be included. But more than a description is needed: there needs to be some critical evaluation - and it is pondering the nature of that evaluation - subjective or objective, instinctive or informed - which raises interesting questions.

Only too naturally our feeling for a show, a personal enjoyment or distaste, dictates our first reaction, and no matter the criteria, our judgement will usually hold to that. It’s the I Know What I Like factor.

For instance, I find many people have a really sweet tooth which they bring to their feelings about a piece. Black comedy, violence, explicit sex are probably anathema to them. Others, like me, don’t enjoy anything that smacks too much of sentimentality or an overly rosy view of humanity; nevertheless I’ll come out of a feel-good movie like Love Actually, or Finding Nemo - well - feeling good.

But I am increasingly worried and bored by the standard post-show 'What did you think of it?’ ‘I thought it was really good’ exchange. When asked ‘Why? What was really good about it?’ many people find it very difficult to give a satisfactory answer. As usual, I hope to get a reaction to my ideas, so please don’t imagine I’m laying down any laws. A debate would be welcome.

At the international festival in Rijeka (Croatia) last month, I saw only two productions which I rated very highly. One was an extensively adapted version of Moliere’s The Miser, and the other a Japanese mime and object play called Triangle - Four Seasons. They were both exceptionally well received and brought standing ovations and demands for encores. Why, it’s your turn to ask, did you think them good?

To start with, the conception or the idea of each was original, if not exactly groundbreaking, and second, the execution in both cases was superb. The spectators felt that an interesting basic idea had been excellently delivered.

A text springs from an idea. For my present purpose the text is the elaboration of the conception in terms of words or a storyboard which the show interprets, and in both cases the text was inspired. Moliere is in any case inspired, but there are dangers in altering any of his plays, be it abridged or adapted. In this version of The Miser the adapted text served the idea brilliantly: this Miser was hoarding not gold but water, in a world where water had become the most precious commodity. We can all identify with that. Two actors played with small, roughly made tabletop figures whose bodies were pieces of cloth and whose heads were bath and basin taps held by a hand under the cloth.

For Triangle - Four Seasons there were no words, just two players onstage with a vast array of triangular shapes (painted polystyrene, mostly - very light) in bright colours and many sizes, all constantly rearranged into a dynamic narrative loosely linked to the seasons. The triangles transformed into a myriad of objects, from flowers and butterflies to landscapes and space rockets, with the two performers adding humour and mimed commentary to the show’s richness of invention.

Unity of style in the design and performing elements of a show might be the next consideration. Each of these two productions had an understanding of sculptural and pictorial values (the fine art element - a sine qua non of the puppet theatre) making for a unity which satisfied the spectators’ sense of aesthetics. The design and scale of the settings and lighting, the sound and music, merged with the performance element as part of a whole, without jarring or discordance. The puppets and acting style applied to The Miser was satiric caricature, the scenography minimalist. In Triangle the aesthetic was that of simplicity: bright colours, clean outlines, innocent play. Careful choreography contributed to the arrangement of the stage pictures.

Finally, as a criterion of value of any piece, any judgement must include the pivotal question of craft, that part of the preparation of any show which is a crucial part of its execution. It is the heading least likely to be contested. The standard of the execution was excellent in both these productions, unquestionably. All five performers were highly trained and skilled (though the actors in The Miser should strengthen the voice). They were capable of establishing a relationship with their spectators which drew the two groupings, company and audience, close together. Complicity it’s sometimes called.
The on-stage pianist who accompanied the Triangle piece was technically accomplished and super-sensitive to the mood and the action; and I have rarely seen a better economy or expressivity of movement as in the female mime artist, while her male partner excelled in puppet manipulation. On all counts - personal enjoyment, originality of conception, interesting dramaturgy or text, unity of style, aesthetic satisfaction, a high level of execution, professional craftsmanship, high production values - the shows could be rated well above average.

At a festival in Lleida, Catalunya, I recently had the great pleasure of seeing two first-rate productions for young people, both of which won a prize for best festival show. It might be worth applying my newly expressed criteria to them both, to see if my list is long enough or whether there are other considerations affecting a reviewer’s judgement that should be included.

This second pair, one for children, the other for teenagers, were first of all remarkable for the idea or message contained in them. The first, Embolic a la Granja (Trouble on the Farm) was about the fear and distrust of strangers, and the other, Operacio A.V.I. (Operation A.V.I), tackled the problem, in terms of humans and ancient cultural values, of growing old and/or outdated. Both fears were resolved to leave the audience feeling very good indeed (on the available evidence of smiles and loud applause). While hardly original as dramatic themes, they are not often served up for children and teenagers, and in both cases the text was exemplary.
The execution also elevated both shows into the First Class category. Each was consummately played by male clown-puppeteers and actor-puppeteers respectively, whose level of skill (some poor mouth-synch in show two apart) was high. The style of Trouble on the Farm was comedic, a humour applied with a broad brush, which extended into the clowning, the puppets, the scenography and the music, and was entirely suitable for conveying a serious theme to a young audience. Unity of style was perfect.

The aesthetic of Operation A.V.I. was gentle caricature, with a tender, almost rueful core. The inclusion of a villainous scientist and his machine which restored youth to people, stories and animals provided the excitement, while the hero was a sort of universal Grandpa not at all desirous of regaining his youth. The piece had depth and humanity. Didacticism was entirely avoided. These were two fine texts that, respectively, children and teenagers could identify and grapple with.

As for the level of craftsmanship, it was a joy to experience, almost equally fine in both cases. The puppets were superbly made and operated, and there was especial pleasure in the organisation of the stage space in both shows. The scenery sprung surprises throughout both stories, transforming itself into several areas of action in endlessly inventive ways. This evidenced the application of enormous care and skill (with no fat budgets, I suspect) and of a respect for young people who were here offered the very best in every part of the production.

Is the inclusion of generous, human values another criterion to add to the list? Academically, no; but the spirit which informs a show is sometimes a palpable thing, part of the good or bad feeling generated in the theatre and carried away by the spectator.

The highest praise of any reviewer must be reserved for that rarest of productions wherein he or she finds herself in the presence of artistry. There are great difficulties in writing criteria for the recognition and evaluation of true art or the true artist. The reader is welcome to try!

It would be unfair not to give details of the four shows described above. Having praised them so highly they deserve to be identified, even in a general essay like this:
The Miser is presented by the Spanish company Tabula Rassa and the performers are O. Benoit and M. Gallardo. Scenography: X. Erra and X. Sallo. Tabletop operation, actors in view.
Triangle - Four Seasons has as its producing company Etsuko World (see their website); the performers are Chica and Ogawa Kosaku. The pianist is Rin Heitetsu. Director: Kinosuke Tsubame. Objects, mime, hands-on puppetry.
Trouble on the Farm is produced by the Spanish company La Baldufa, who are actually based in Lleida, the place of the festival where they won a prize, and was played by Carles Benseny, Enric Blasi, Emiliano Pardo and Carles Pijuan. The puppets are by Carles Pijuan. Large animal figures, both hands-on and table-top.

Operation A.V.I. is produced and played by the Farres Brothers, Pep and Jordi,. Based near Barcelona in Odena. Scenery and puppets are by the great Alfred Casas, and the director is Jordi Palet. Small table-top figures.

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