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Animations Online 36

REVIEWS:
Suspense London Puppetry Festival

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> Great Small Works, Triple Bill
> Wild Theatre, Stonebelly
> Susan Beattie, Spirit
> Yas-e-Tamam Theatre Group, The House of Bernarda Alba
> GOT Company and Bluebird Puppets, Song cycle by Franz Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin
> Sandglass Theatre, Autumn Portraits
> Indefinitearticles, Penumbra
> Puppet Grinder Cabaret

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Great Small Works
Triple Bill

Little Angel Theatre | Suspense London Puppetry Festival
2 November 2011

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

What are the quintessentials of toy theatre? In case you don’t know, Great Small Works are here to tell: toy theatre is played out within a proscenium arch; it is a miniature theatre production; the set, props and performers are made of paper; it is flat; and you can make and do it yourself. To help us remember these five defining characteristics, the team of four performers – two men, two women, dressed in ill-fitting suits and sporting an assortment of toy musical instruments – have written a little ditty, which they teach us to sing with accompanying gestures. It’s a great start to their always entertaining – not to mention informative, politically insightful and thought-provoking – triple bill of works, presented at Little Angel as part of the Suspense festival.

Billed (entirely accurately) as A Short, Entertaining History of Toy Theater, part one takes us on a whirlwind journey to the form’s origins in the late 18th century, when mass-produced replicas of popular plays were sold as kits that people assembled at home for ‘a penny plain or tuppence coloured.’ We learn (through the sung lecture by the enigmatic John Bell’s mad professor character) that people took pride not only in careful handpainting their kit, but also in embellishing their toy theatre characters with bits of fabric and metal leaf. As our ‘professor’ continues to work through the beautiful reproductions lined up on his easel, we learn that the realism of the late 19th century did toy theatre no favours, but the form was championed by such luminaries as Robert Louis Stevenson; and that in the 20th century the toy theatre became a tool of the avant-garde, popular with the Futurists and later artistic movements, and used as a tool for political satire.

The second piece presented, A Walk in the City, is a short contemporary toy theatre play using what the company describe as ‘pre-cinema technology’. It’s based on an Italo Calvino book of short stories called Marcovaldo, which have been adapted and directed by Robert Rossi. The Marcovaldo series depicts the life of a poor rural man living in a big industrial city in northern Italy. Great Small Works shift the location from Italy to America, but retain the central Rousseau-inspired Romantic notion of a clash between the ‘natural’ and the ‘built’ environment and the longing to find something real and true amongst the commercial excesses of a modern mega-city. The piece is played out on a large box-booth construction that uses an elaborate – almost Japanese – miniature fly system, building up beautiful layers of imagery (sulphur skies, shadow skyscrapers, lone flowers blooming in rubble) as a series of sliding metallic screens are slotted in to the sides.

The final piece is the one that fits most readily into my preconceptions of what Great Small Works would be: atake-no-prisoners political satire, such as you’d expect from a company that grew out of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater (although unlike the ‘mother company’, who made the decision to go rural, Great Small Works live and work in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn, New York).

Toy Theater of Terror as Usual, Episode 12: Desert and Ocean is the latest (as the name implies) of an ongoing series of works that started in 1990, in response to the first Gulf War and in deference to cultural commentator Walter Benjamin’s notion of a culture ‘in a permanent state of emergency’, in which the company use texts and images cut from newspapers as their starting point. In this episode, we encounter birds and fish floundering in a polluted sea swamped by surreal sailing vessels – such as Republican ‘Tea Party’ cups and saucers – the wildlife’s distress presided over by an enormous BP green-and-yellow ‘sun’ rising over the horizon. The smallness and intimacy of the form really bring the big issues of leaked oil, lacklustre reassurances, and capitalist kow-towing into intense focus.

What a wonderful evening! It’s not often that you get swanee whistles, kazoos, prettily painted paper puppets, Calvino’s stories, and biting political satire all on one bill: but it’s not often you get to see Great Small Works here in the UK. All thanks to Little Angel and Suspense for programming this legendary company. Please can we have them back again soon.

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Wild Theatre
Stonebelly
Little Angel Theatre | Suspense London Puppetry Festival
3 November 2011

Reviewed by Isobel Smith

Wild Theatre is a collaboration between Rebekah Wild and Gerhard Picher. Working internationally, they collaborate with other theatre companies, and tour their own shows in which they work on all aspects of the production, from designing and building to devising to touring.

The piece they presented at Suspense, a ‘visual poem’ called Stonebelly, possessed a trance-like hypnotic power. Magnified by Hannah Marshall's specially composed score, it lured the audience smoothly and effectively into its world of dreams and memories, a place inhabited by discarded and forgotten things scavenged from the far beaches of New Zealand and the flea markets of Vienna.

The action happened on and around three round plinth-planets. The blackness around them was so exquisitely solid and dense that it ran up to the lit objects and sought to enfold them even as it revealed them – finely observed object/creatures which burned the retina with their dream-like images and impressions.

Bone-ish sticks morphed and reconvened, time and time again into inquisitive characters, an elephant's graveyard, bone-henge and back to their bone-stick-selves again. The twists and tensions inherent in a cow-faced spring became a beautifully choreographed battle for supremacy between puppeteer and object. Eventually the spring relented exhausted and the epic action moved elsewhere. Nails and hammers conspired and the whole plinth fizzed with energy and became a torch-lit alien invasion.

Rebekah Wild's intense delight and familiarity with the objects she manipulated was tangible as she expertly enabled them to share their memories and express their secret desires.

When I emerged, slightly disorientated, into the foyer of the Little Angel, I could feel the last of the sand falling and settling in my head. What an amazing dream.

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Susan Beattie
Spirit
Rosemary Branch | Suspense London Puppetry Festival
1 November 2011

Reviewed by Penny Francis

This charming, modest show gently tackled the rather contemporary problem of the loss of faith in religion and even a God. How can we stand such a loss? The performance insisted (quoting Hamlet) that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in (y)our philosophy’ and that a spirit life can never be denied. Even if the concept of a bearded patriarchal power on high seems childish to some ‘moderns’, most of us have experienced some manifestation of a non-physical presence that defies explanation, at least given our actual state of scientific knowledge. The show gave samples of these manifestations in narration and visual imagery, the first simple, even simplistic, and the latter original, pleasing to the eye.

Accompanied by atmospheric music and abstract lighting effects, there were references to the practices of the Hopi Indian tribes, to stargazing, childbirth, dreams, ‘the psycho-therapeutic process’, drugs and trances, ghosts, near-death experiences and so on. The kaleidoscope of depictions included half-seen shapes in a number of translucent boxes, rearranged so as to seem in constant movement, framing the various scenes with projections, puppet figures and a shimmering silver shape-shifting sheet.

Susan Beattie was responsible for the primary conception of the piece, assisted in the performance by Sarah Fitzpatrick and Beatrice Pentney with Kate Middleton a co-devisor. The visual media were by Litza Jansz, a film-maker whose work has been exhibited at Tate Modern and the NFT. It was directed by Rob Humphreys.

I found Spirit slightly soporific but strangely appealing and comforting: certainly it was thought-provoking. I would happily see it again.

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Yas-e-Tamam Theatre Group
The House of Bernarda Alba
New Diorama Theatre | Suspense London Puppetry Festival

2 November 2011

Reviewed by Emma Leishman

Harking back to the political puppetry roots of Britain, when puppetry was used to give voice to the people, this year's Suspense Festival emphasises the relationship between puppetry and politics with the Tehran based Yas-e-Tamam Theatre Group presenting a UK premiere of their powerful production of The House of Bernarda Alba.

As we enter, the performers are already positioned on the dimly-lit stage, initially presenting white-gauze masked faces with crudely sewn crosses as features – a stark and compelling image that immediately draws you into Bernarda Alba's world of mourning and isolation. The masking of the performer’s faces not only turns the performers into life-size puppets but also makes comment on the present political situation in Iranian theatre regarding strict government censorship on all theatre.

According to a recent article in The Stage, puppet theatre in Iran has had a resurgence of popularity as puppets have far more freedom to say and do what they like without fear of breaking the law. Yas-e-Tamam Theatre Group's production seems to be deliberately focusing on metaphors regarding imprisonment and submissiveness, drawing attention to the continued oppression of women within today's Iranian society, not only through the choice of telling the story of Bernarda Alba, but also with making deliberate and obvious design choices, such as the mouth-less masks of the performers, and deciding to use a pre-recorded soundtrack of the dialogue in Farsi. These metaphors are further exaggerated with the three performers dressed in costumes similar to a nun's habit or a burqa, fully covered head-to-toe with only the use of physical expression through their hands, and somewhat through their bodies, to tell the story. Even the many mini doll-like puppets, which emerge from boxes and suitcases that make up the rest of the set, are replicas of the performers, but do not have the use of their arms, with their hands sewn together in supplication.

The sceneography of the production is deeply considered: using minimal set and props the performers are separated from the audience with train tracks running in a semi-circle, seeming to suggest there’s no end and no way out for any of the characters. Despite these strong production elements, the visual storytelling needed further clarity through more stylised physicality as the Farsi dialogue did not always translate through the puppetry, and often the meaning of the content was lost in more pedestrian, dialogue-heavy scenes. On many levels, this was a brave piece of theatre and certainly pushes political boundaries. However, its boldness needed to extend through to pushing puppetry and physical boundaries articulating the story further visually, thus rendering the dialogue as an added poetic device.   

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GOT Company and Bluebird Puppets
Song cycle by Franz Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin

Rosemary Branch | Suspense London Puppetry Festival

5 November 2011

Reviewed by Penny Francis

Both the famous, tragic song cycles by Schubert, ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ (‘The Lovely Miller Maid’) and ‘Winterreise’ (‘Winter Journey’) were presented on the same day of the Suspense festival, but I saw and heard only the first, in the afternoon. The baritone Thomas Guthrie (GOT Company) was accompanied by David Owen Norris, both artists of the top rank. Guthrie’s voice is rich and varied in tone, as befits the variation in mood of the songs, and his appearance is pleasing. The accompanist, hidden by screens, was similarly excellent, and transcended the faults of the theatre-pub’s piano.

But this was a show in a puppet festival, so of course there had to be puppetry. Here the standard of the performance slipped. A single figure (made by Mandarava, presented under the auspices of Bluebird Puppets) was intended to express the story of the song cycle, and a less expressive puppet would be difficult to imagine. Hung from the ceiling and held in front of the singer who pretended the puppet was giving the performance, it consisted of a human-sized head attached to a voluminous shirt, leaving exposed the trousers and shoes of the human singer. The puppet, including hair and shirt, was uniformly white, perhaps to suggest the ghostly nature of the young man, the protagonist, who has committed suicide for love of the miller maid. Its face held an anxious frown, pursed lips and wide eyes. The body was capable of minimal movement from side to side and some play of the arms, held by Guthrie. As a putative character it interacted with the singer only at the end in the songs of dialogue with the brook in which he drowns.

I would greatly have preferred to view the singer without the puppet, and tried to watch only Guthrie – almost invisible behind the puppet  -- or to close my eyes to concentrate on his voice and the sublime music. The puppet which was intended to heighten the poetry and the visual appeal did exactly the reverse, at least for me. But it was a brave idea.

The same evening there was a performance of the ‘Winterreise’ cycle (a revival of the production made for New Kent Opera) in which I am assured the puppetry was more interesting and successful. Maybe Guthrie will work with Mandarava to enrich its contribution to ‘The Lovely Miller Maid’.

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Sandglass Theatre
Autumn Portraits
Little Angel Theatre | Suspense London Puppetry Festival

30 October 2011

Reviewed by Emma Leishman

Sitting in the dark folds of the Little Angel Theatre a familiar sense of belonging, mixed with that warm fuzzy feeling you get with a family Christmas at home, descended upon me. A small but supportive Sunday matinee audience had gathered to watch American company Sandglass Theatre’s Autumn Portraits. It was as if we were honoured to be at a private showing that only the artist’s closest family and friends could attend. Everyone laughed and clapped in the appropriate places and an eagerness enveloped us.

Eric Bass’s solo performance of a series of five vignettes using rod puppetry and mask begged the question: what is it that puppets can say about life and death which humans find difficult to express?

While there were moments that were deeply profound and each vignette explored a different question on life and death, there was the dissatisfaction of feeling unanswered and the piece focused more on commenting on morality rather than the answers – and not necessarily with specificity or resolution. I was left wondering why Bass chose these characters – a Russian, a monk, an old-time actor, a storyteller and a shoemaker. Perhaps these were his personal archetypes, each reflecting a piece of his personality? Was the audience supposed to understand the comment Bass was making or merely witness a moment – and why these moments?

Regardless of the obvious skill and delicate gesture Bass executed with each puppet throughout, the piece felt tired. And despite the continued relevance of the subject matter, I am not sure if the style of this piece will continue to suit contemporary audiences. A stronger sense of narrative would give this piece the gravitas it requires to be timeless and more focused, but in spite of these criticisms this audience gave a hearty applause for a well regarded performer and puppeteer.

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Indefinitearticles
Penumbra
Roundhouse | Suspense London Puppetry Festival

4 November 2011

Reviewed by Isobel Smith

Penumbra (perceptual): an area of shadow which is between fully dark and fully light

In December 2008, Adventures in Dance and Puppetry was commissioned and presented by the Puppet Centre Trust. A number of artists exploring where dance and puppetry could meet were invited to make work. A period of research and development into the project was followed by a series of ten-minute works-in-progress presented at Battersea Arts Centre's Grand Hall to an industry audience.

Amongst those artists was Steve Tiplady of indefinitearticles. Working in collaboration with dancer/choreographer Jane Turner, he used that opportunity to explore shifting ‘umbra’ and ‘penumbra’ and their ability to distort and play with the movement of light shaped by a dancer’s body and motion. As part of the investigations a non-articulate object (a glass bottle) was used and the play of shifting light caused the hard and otherwise solid form to bend, yield, and undulate its shape.

Steve Tiplady and his partner Sally Todd's explorations in their latest show Penumbra develop these ideas and push them further. Constantly questioning reality, they bend their bodies, the ensuing shadows, the projections, the light and our minds in this exhilarating, boundary-pushing work.

Penumbra flickers between the everyday – with chat and bickering practicalities in front of the screen – and conjured, distorted worlds of shadowy desire and sublimation upon the screen. We are party to a romantic journey, one which explores darkness and light and the swathes of grey in-between. Ultimately, they transform the everyday, mundane, concrete into the extraordinary, the intangible, and the transient.

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Puppet Grinder Cabaret
Jacksons Lane | Suspense London Puppetry Festival 2011

6 November 2011

Reviewed by Emma Leishman

All festivals should end with a bit of a wiz, bang, and pop – and there was no disappointment with the Suspense Festival's finale of the Puppet Grinder Cabaret. With an adult-only programme of puppetry of various styles and incarnations, and with the naughty-but-nice Nina Conti as the evening’s compere, a good time was bound to be had by all.

Part of the fun and terror of Ms Conti's style of comedy and ventriloquism is that she always picks on the audience. The terror comes as you never know who she may pick on next, but it is much like going to watch a good horror flick – you know you are going to be scared and you love it and hate it at the same time. Nina and her band of characters (that here include her ‘old familiar’ Monkey and a new Granny character, allegedly based on Conti’s own grandmother) have a charm that you cannot resist, and so if asked a question, or invited to take part, each audience member, no matter how reluctant they seemed, always obliged – with laugh-out-loud results. As the MC for the evening, she kept the audience thoroughly entertained, deftly transitioning from one act to the next.

After Nina Conti’s intro act came Mark Mander’s Clementine The Living Fashion Doll – a ‘humanette’ featuring a human head with the body of a puppet, Mander lip-syncing to old-time tunes which put a smile on your face. Mark hides in a Punch and Judy style booth, his body covered while his head (poking out of a curtain) is painted up for a girl's night out, with Clementine's tiny body sitting on a swing below. It isn’t a puppetry style to this reviewer’s taste, but an entertaining act nevertheless.

Next in the line-up was Mucky Puppets’ Suck-a-Thumb part 3 Mother Sucker – a disconnected, episodic and saucy shadow puppetry film about a tailor who seeks revenge at Mother's Circus Freak Show. If you were an audience member expecting brilliance in animation or puppetry skill, then there would have been disappointment as this is a piece that focuses more on the bawdy subject matter than on the animation, and uses puppetry to get away with saying and doing the lewd and the obvious.

Sawchestra’s The Land of Nod – a vintage silent film accompanied by a live score – completed the first act. A cacophony of various strange and unusual musical instruments, reminiscent of a clown's orchestra, is mixed with the symphonic sounds of musical saws, all conducted by a giant white rabbit as the underscore for a surreally humorous film (Dreams of Toyland, 1908) in which a little boy dreams of his toys coming to life. Audience engagement was integral, with toy instruments handed out at the start. You only needed a sense of fun and silliness to take part, and for me with my trombone-kazoo and a decent lung capacity, music was found, made and embraced.

Act Two began with the witty and talented Blind Summit team sharing the first part of their current production The Table. This piece frolicked and played with the deconstructing of its puppetry style (bunraku) and of the show itself, which was purporting to be a reconstruction of the last twelve hours of Moses’ life (in real time), which of course we never get to see. Mark Down and his team of puppeteers never disappoint: like a finely-tuned machine, the three puppeteers move their puppet as one around the table, exploring the constraints and freedoms of a table-top bunraku puppet.

Almost at the end of the programme was a very, very short mock-instructional silent film animation – the Penelope Pitstop/Whacky Races cartoons instantly came to mind. The Gentleman's Guide to Villainy by Aidan McAteer is a superb short animation, laced with black humour, style and precise comic timing – the only criticism is that I wish it went on longer as this would have been a perfect ending to a brash and bawdy evening. However, Clementine had one more turn on the ‘dancefloor’ – an addition which I felt wasn’t needed.

This was my first experience of this particular cabaret, and I felt that it was a great success – a wonderful way to end the Suspense festival 2011.

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