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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008

There were puppets a-plenty at this year’s Fringe,
as witnessed by Beccy Smith
and Darren East

The whisper on the street was that this wasn’t a vintage year at the festival. Drenched and disheartened, critics trawled from venue to venue muttering about three-star shows and filling the vacuum left by an absence of buzz with dark looks and darker blogs.

For puppetry, however, the winds were more auspicious. Year on year the presence of puppetry at the Fringe has been on the up and 2008 brought not only a bumper crop of new puppet performances (not to mention the return of some old favourites) but also an astonishing diversity of styles and approaches. In a five-day visit these critics were not actually able to see every show featuring puppetry in the programme – although it was a noble attempt to break the back of it. In a programme where puppetry was until recently ghettoised amidst the children’s pages, productions had colonised every section from dance to comedy, with a diverse tranche of theatre in between.

This proliferation itself permitted a different perspective on the puppetry, throwing the form into relief by the variety of stories and figures on display, making the choices to use puppets and the ways in which they were used more visible. Some productions emphasised form over substance, enjoying using puppetry just a little too much to keep an eye on its role in their drama. In The Time Step, created by Linda Marlowe (who co-directed with Josie Lawrence and also starred), an expressive table-top figure designed by Nick Barnes from Blind Summit had been selected as a neat formal articulation of character but such formal shorthand drowned the crudely manipulated figure under metaphorical overload. It made sense as a dramaturgical choice to have the character of the small child, a pawn in the desperate and somewhat bizarre games of dysfunctional mother-daughter tap-dancer wannabes, appear as a puppet. Sadly the abuse the character suffered at the hands of his family was mirrored in the performance’s overall effect, which threatened to vanish the character into symbol – it meant so much that the character was a puppet that it didn’t matter who he was at all. In a naturalistic context this proved deadly and, although using puppetry in the context of ‘new writing’ is to be lauded, sadly this production became an example of the pitfalls innate in colliding these approaches without due diligence to the needs of each form. (To be fair, it didn’t seem that Matthew Hurt’s writing had received much concentrated attention either, but juxtaposing script with puppet served only to emphasise the shortcomings of both.)

But this was not the only show in which the balance of form to content was out-of-sync. For a show that aimed to tell a story with no words whatsoever (and only cheated a little bit), Lost in the Wind, first production by young Bristol company Lost Spectacles, got off to an admirably clear start: a man set out to travel with a suitcase and a large map. To his dismay the weather, a major player in this production, stepped in – and the wind instantly whipped away the map. It was found and seized upon by four mysterious clown characters who divided it up between them. At first, the traveller’s interactions with this strange group, and his observations of their comic rituals, were intriguing. But after a while, with the narrative seemingly stuck, it started to feel more like a series of theatre exercises: newspaper games, a dancing puppet figure of a dead husband contrived from hat and plastic tubing, a song constructed from each character’s favourite vegetable, the balloon as symbol of fragility, a suitcase pursuit, a truly mystifying whose-line-is-it-anyway sketch on a submarine...

While always done with precision and energy, these tended toward subroutines, demarcated with their own soundtracks. One particularly memorable sequence used a small puppet figure, constructed from newspaper and other jetsam, who struggled to climb a suitcase before jumping or falling from it – only to be swept away by the wind on his carrier-bag parachute. It was deftly done, and would have been genuinely touching if there had been some deeper understanding of who he was, and what hewas up to. With story forsaken for spectacle, you need to polish the specs. Luckily, the Lost Spectacles have a big wind machine and they aren’t afraid to use it, to fill the stage with a blizzard of paper from which the poetic, inquisitive clowns escaped but which buried the hapless traveller, in a fatal metaphor for the futility of waiting for certainty. Committed and generous performers, I felt Lost Spectacles had much more to offer than, in this show, they allowed themselves to – at times the somewhat mannered clowning, rather than opening up communication with the audience, felt like a restriction – or a safety net. With these clowns a little too much in mock-childlike awe of their own creations, I wanted a better foil than the mundane traveller to unsettle the happy idiots. Nevertheless, there was much skill and imagination here and it will be interesting to see where the company goes next.

In Anonymous Theatre Ensemble’s Wanderlust the cocktail of forms was heady: aiming to combine theatre, club and cabaret, the show drew together burlesque and puppetry (an enticing combination), circus skills and some rather baffling storytelling. This is the most participatory show I’ve ever not-been-able-to-simply-witness, with the audience drawn out of their seats by our host, the ten-foot Bavarian Hilda, within minutes of the lights going down and sharing the stage space with her thereafter, assisting with storytelling including creating a circus tent with her voluminous skirt, playing various characters and making one another feel good (via massage, drum ’n’ bass dancing and sharing shots of vodka). Puppetry feels very steeped within the language of this world, with its extravagant meta-theatre, the grotesque and fabulous scene it conjured (from the circus to the Bible with a lot of folksy, dirty deeds along the way) all told through a melodramatic, macabre Germanic drawl. Yet, strangely the puppetry felt the most conventional aspect of the show, with the exception of a tiny bit of glove puppetry enacted inside her costume (and couple of token, though memorable vodka bottle puppets), we were directed to look at a simple, shabby flat screen over the auditorium where film of some Pierrot-style figures exposited some back story and a bit of filthy shadow play didn’t draw a veil over anything. This was a bizarre, baffling, but ultimately entertaining evening: however the puppetry, though competent, didn’t really find its place within the baroque storytelling as a whole.

A very different triumph of form over substance came in the idiosyncratic vision of Russia’s Sharmanka’s Kinetic theatre. Completely filling the chancel-like cavern of Theatre Workshop’s space, aesthetically, this was a rare gem tucked far from the Royal Mile and the increasingly southern heart of the festival. Sharmanka is Russian for hurdy-gurdy and the company have adopted the name to contain the sense of art through mechanics articulated by their gothic automata in which reconstituted relics of craft and industry are peopled by tiny carved anthropomorphs who crawl and spin, run and cry in the endless march of man against machine. The machines, of course are both literal – this was a vision saturated in a Marxist view of man’s humility amidst industry – and metaphorical: clockwork was repeatedly evoked as an image and the sense of scale in the relationship of man’s aspiration to a faceless world was redolent throughout. There were subtler interpretation to be made – the titles of the various sculptures that cyclically came to life – the Brainwashing Machine, The Apple Eaters; Master and Margarita – referenced philosophy, cultural history, politics, and the world was saturated with sex and death, hope and fantasy. For mechanical objects the rhythm and tone were surprisingly varied, helped along by some rather unsubtle selections of soundtrack and lurid (though beautifully staged) lighting. There was beauty here too and an exciting sense of showmanship but ultimately the show was circumscribed by its form: no matter how baroque and colourful the invention, the sense of the whole could be summarised in the final image of a tiny mechanical man, pedalling, alone in the darkness, powering he knows not what.

The undeniable skills of maker Eduard Bersudsky underpinned this virtuoso production and elsewhere the exemplary skills of other international companies were much in evidence, particularly at Hill St Theatre which was effectively running a Polish festival-within-the-festival this year. In Teatr K3’s …etectera… we were in many senses watching a demonstration of technical prowess from recent graduates of the Bialystok Puppet School. The premise was simple: three women, and about twelve beautifully constructed, doughy puppets, strewn artfully within a taped-off cube of stage littered with a few tables but otherwise a bare black box. Drawn in from the audience the motives of the puppeteers, who first, wide-eyed, discovered the space and its contents before ritualistically choosing their first puppet (a supremely sinister collective pointing), soon became clear. Bringing the figures, one by one, to detailed, if straightforward life (each puppet would discover himself and then simply revel in his own liveliness, his body and the space, running, jumping, dancing, falling in love), the puppeteers soon shifted from facilitators to destroyers, conceiving ever more brutal ways to kill the figures they had so artfully animated. The puppetry on display, especially the bunraku-style tabletop work – a display of marionetting was a little clumsier – was near faultless, though the point of the piece was less in evidence. A strange ensemble dance number in the puppets’ charnel house near the end seemed to suggest the women were compelled to destroy their charges to take over the stage themselves but this frame seemed tacked on and it was the manipulation itself that stole the show. There was a certain brute satisfaction to be had in watching puppets repetitively torn apart, slapped about, hung, tricked and tortured but ultimately some less self-referential content (in this case the content was the form, but in a rather loosely thought-through way) might have lifted us from appreciation to genuine enjoyment.

Taking its title and inspiration from a shape-shifting monster – of medieval German literature, via Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings – Kompania Doomsday’s Baldanders ostensibly showed us the relationship between the caged trickster and his two-headed master, but also dug deep into the identity and power relationships between puppet and puppeteer. Marcin Bikowski, who directed as well as playing the monster, produced a tour-de-force performance as a succession of grotesques, mainly appearing as muppet-style mouth puppets sharing parts of his anatomy. Throughout, he also played himself as their alter-ego, in tense and often violent interaction – mocking, teasing, fighting, arguing, dancing – with the puppet figures. The precision and sustained reality of the separation of these symbiotic characters was masterful, and taken still further when a third speaking character, a tiny worm-like puppet figure, was added to the mix.

We are used, in Britain, primarily to seeing this form of lipsync puppetry used for light-entertainment figures, so an unsettling dissonance was produced when it was used to bring us a bloody-mouthed and bare-breasted woman who fought her operator for one of her teeth, a boxful of riddling heads, or a terrifying hissing devil that athletically stalked the walls of its cage. The text of the piece was somewhat impenetrable and unsympathetically translated from Polish. There were layers of metaphorical language and philosophical musings that sat uneasily with the cascade of virtuoso puppetry, physicality and voice work, leaving watchers wondering what profundity they were missing out on. For a Polish audience, the symbolism of the power relationships and the allusive text perhaps speak to national identity and history. But this was one to see for Bikowski’s outrageous performance.

In Wiczy Theatre’s Broken Nails we were treated to another rare display of performance, from the talented Anna Skubik who managed not only to bring Marlene Dietrich to independent life whilst wearing her as a full body puppet, but to create a vivid relationship between this character and her own without compromising the reality of the figure. Deft voice work, ventriloquism and physicality underpinned this strange symbiosis which chose to tell an even stranger tale – of the (real? imagined?) relationship between a slavish dresser and her charge, the fading star, a relationship underpinned by aspiration, jealously, bitterness and not-so-sublimated desire. The figure, when not abandoned to facilitate some very tricky staging decisions, was highly evocative – the face beautifully designed (though not flawless in construction). Again the material didn’t do justice to the quality of the performance and puppetry, suffering from a patchy translation and presupposing a lot of prior knowledge of Dietrich but the moments when it flew, notably the songs, were extraordinary. The highlight for me was a combative duet of Mein Herr in which both characters jockeyed for the limelight whilst sitting provocatively on a chair – sharing of course only one pair of legs.

Far more crudely drawing on puppetry’s power and control tropes was All Dressed Up To Go Dreaming, by Pope Joan Theatre Company, playing in an atmospheric C-Soco basement. A dashingly-dressed diplomat, back from a night at the opera, mused portentously on various erudite cultural products to a suave soundtrack, before torturing, raping and dismembering a life-size puppet woman. But there was little attempt to give the puppet any life or identity, robbing the scene of much emotional meaning beyond the unintentionally comic shock value of brutalising a doll. In the absence of any significant puppetry logic, one wondered whether they’d intended to find a woman to play the part, but been (unsurprisingly) unable to fill the role. Weirder still, the whole piece was played without any contact at all with the tiny, intimate audience – a very strange and disappointing dramatic choice given that we’d been positioned almost as witnesses.

A battle for the body was likewise in evidence in Nina Conti’s sell out stand-up Evolution, but here form married content in much more satisfactory style. Having made her name in the ventriloqual double act with her foul-mouthed puppet, Monkey, Conti doesn’t sit back on her laurels (let’s face it, you could guarantee a decent Edinburgh crowd on that intriguing gimmick alone) but continues to push her form. Evolution develops the emphasis on the illusion of it all, always a stock-in-trade of ventriloquism routines, here pushed to absurd new heights such as a hypnosis routine where the puppet is struck, a mute Doctor Freud, after hypnotising his operator. It’s all ardently self-aware, and a significant proportion of the act is drawn from Monkey’s insistence that his puppeteer is speaking for him, thinking for him; we’re referred to previous shows and reviews; Conti’s celebrity father (Tom) makes a brief, memorable appearance but, as in all good puppetry, this renders the truths of the show that much more loaded. When Conti talks about feeding all her naughtier impulses through the puppet character, whilst in conversation with him, the set up is rich in dramatic irony and psychological tension. And the skills on display are also never complacent - from the Russian doll effect of puppet operating puppet, through some truly hilarious (prosthetic) breast puppetry to a mind boggling role reversal whose secrets it would be unfair to give away here, this is manipulation and ventriloquism of the highest order. This is not just a show using puppetry, it is a show about puppetry and, for an audience well versed in contemporary anti-illusion perhaps this is the most satisfying marriage of form and content of them all?

Elsewhere, other classical puppetry skills were put to the test. In a traditional storytelling context, Theatre of Widdershins continued to sell out with old favourite Three Billy Goats Gruff, proving that there’s still a real appetite for conventional puppetry expertly deployed on the Fringe.

Puppet State returned triumphant with their beautiful (and now, Total Theatre Award-winning) production, The Man Who Planted Trees, in which a raucous glove-puppet dog effectively interrupts and enrichens the classic tabletop telling of a contemporary fairytale with a host of theatrical invention and evocative narrative – plus a contender for the best ‘but I’m a puppet’ joke ever: I won’t spoil it, but those who’ve seen the show will remember that it comes when the dog recalls a visit to the, er, ‘vegetarian’.

Shitty Deal Puppetry’s Complete Guide to the Arts demonstrated that simple glove puppetry, albeit it with a good enough gimmick and filthy enough jokes, can also pull an adult crowd. Classical puppetry this was not, but the quick fire material is gagtastic and never have so eclectic a crew of glove puppets, figurines, barbie dolls and muppets been put through their slapstick paces so ruthlessly.

If your material is not quite funny enough to stand up for itself, on the other hand, putting socks on either hand isn't going to do much to help. Especially if that means every sketch is preceded by a bit of faffing about with the socks' costumes behind your booth. Sadly, aside from one or two good sock gags and a brave brief stab at Lear, The Return of the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre had little to recommend it as either comedy or puppetry.

Conversely, in the unconventional setting of the Forest Fringe’s eclectic programme, the innovative styling of the Paper Cinema’s take on shadow puppetry and paper play was the runaway success story of this experimental venue. Combining the live with the cinematic by juxtaposing hand-drawn with digital imagery, the homemade with the vividly photographic opened up new dimensions of storytelling whilst employing some of the most traditional of puppetry skills.

So there was much on offer at this year’s festival in terms of the deployment of surprising and skilful puppetry-in-action. But what about the content provided for this emerging host of puppet storytellers?

Often, this proved problematic. For Les Enfants Terribles the content of their story and its manner of delivery often seemed to emasculate the vigour of its musical, visual form. Their successful show, The Terrible Infants returned to Edinburgh after a triumphant run at last year’s festival and was packing out the enormous Udderbelly Pasture when I attended. Underpinned by skill and panache in the telling, it would have been easy to get swept along by the high energy narratives (based on a series of Strudel Peter-style short stories by Oliver Lansley and Sam Wyer, the playful, folksy live music. The puppetry was skilful and inventive, with a pleasingly rough and simple style. I particularly enjoyed the flock of bumble bees bouncing on the end of long withys and the plays on scale with the boy who always wanted more to eat (whose simple logic elicited cries of glee from the young audience). But too often the content overpowered the form: this was a world of ‘stories’: a quaint fairytale existence full of charming old ladies who seemed to have wandered out of pop-up books and naughty children whose deeds were dastardly, but never dangerous: tellingly we never did find out the most terrible lie of the chief storyteller, the one that made the others gasp. There was simply no scope for it in this world. And when the company moved out of this world, such as for the contemporary-looking tabletop ‘hoodie’ who wanted only to disappear, the theatrical cracks started to show. The fact is, it’s difficult to make ideas and feelings seem relevant and true within a theatre of white clown faces, mannered alliterative rhyming couplets and prancing physical theatre postures, and these characteristics managed to make even the lively music and often interesting moments of puppetry seem quaint. The young audience were mostly highly entertained by the sounds and pictures, at least, if not the words, but for me this show served to demonstrate the deliciously dangerous power of its antecedent Shockheaded Peter by enacting its exact opposite.

There are striking similarities between the problems suffered by young company Gomito’s show, The Sun Dragon and Les Enfants Terribles’ work although, interestingly, the theatrical invention of the former far exceeded the well rehearsed, rather cloying slickness of the latter. The Sun Dragon threw together object animation, large scale puppetry, fake snow, live magic battles, smoke machines, fireflies, and of course a giant glowing-eyed dragon, with an exuberant glee that did a lot to distract from the terribly twee script. There is a real flair for visual storytelling in this young company’s work, but they don’t yet seem entirely to trust it. Their audience was captivated by moments of joyous object animation (when five plantpots became a very expressive ‘small time travelling robot’ who could stack himself into a neat pile when under attack) and by the wonderful large-scale figures they had created, including a luminous star-studded sage. And there was genuine theatrical bravura in many of the effects the five-strong company created, exposed on their thrust stage: from using a giant fan to create a head wind for flying, to manhandling lights to create a solar eclipse, a battle of spells, a single, touchable, star. This is wonderfully theatrical stuff with the puppetry well integrated to a language of things and rough-yet-magical transformation which characterised their dramaturgy. Only the story wanted a serious rethink, suffering from serious tell-as-we-show syndrome and often both derivative (there were overtones of both Harry Potter and Labyrinth) and patronising (children don’t want to be told how full of promise they are, as a race). Often it simply felt over-complicated and redundant – there’s no need to overwrite a plot full of poignance and awe and wonder – with material of this kind you can leave that to the audience and we’ll bring it for you.

Gomito’s second show in Edinburgh this year, Before We Remember, was at the Bedlam theatre which, just as last year, provided a good home and a loyal audience for puppet-related shows. This work-rate clearly suits the company, as none of Gomito’s performers look nearly old enough to have had ten shows at the Fringe... Before We Remember, still (we were told) in development, had the appealing premise of examining the memories flashing through the mind of a century-old woman in the second before her death. She told us at the outset that she couldn’t recall anything that happened to her before she was 92 – or was it just that there were things she didn’t want to remember? Either way, there’s quite of lot of detective work to do. This the relentlessly cheerful and charming cast set to with gusto. To begin with, they turned over Bedlam’s black box space by climbing up the walls, and then they dissected it with rope, forming landscapes, environments, spiderwebs and tightropes. They uncovered photographs, re-enacted with witty running commentary, and coaxed greatness from a collection of bin-bags – most memorably a whole ocean, an animated dog, and the tapping sound of rain. At the climax, a shower of old letters fell sympathetically from above. Problems came again in the character and storyline. The centenarian protagonist, Kate Carter, was a strange creation, rather like a teenager’s version of old age. It’s telling that when the cast tracked her life by pegging post-it notes of significant moments on the string timeline, the gleeful and fully-imagined childhood memories gave way to rather clichéd depictions of later life. A moment of love and loss became a simple romantic touchstone, when surely in such a long life it could have had a more sophisticated and satisfying aftermath – we’re not told about much that Kate actually did besides loving and regretting. The texture of the times she lived through seemed slight, although snatches could be sweet, as with the seventies spacehoppers (the bags again) and the ‘loud’ eighties. Ultimately the piece was slightly smothered by its saccharine and twee tendencies, and too often music was used as emotional shorthand. I’d like to see more struggle (the rage and frustration that every life contains at times) and more truthful detail in the development. When this show is back, in 2009, it ought to be a winner.

Sometimes the unconscious echoes of content resonated so as to suggest underlying puppetry themes. Puppets are always about life and death – this year the death was paternal, and repeated...

Pangolin’s Teatime completely transformed their performance space for their show The Last Yak, making the large Pleasance Kingdome intimate by seating the audience on stage in the round, enclosed by screens of white muslin, from behind which much of the action emerged. It was bold and effective staging. The plot was equally brave, inventing a creation myth and stretching it all the way to the death of its god-figure, and paralleling this with another storyline about a feral child discovered by siblings mourning their a recently dead father. So far, so Freudian, but there was also a political fable with a jungleful of animals trying to convene a governing committee, and a false idol in the form of a fake yak. Bringing us these riches was a large cast and a profusion of different puppetry, from satisfyingly simple shadow-puppet storytelling, to bunraku-style figures (the effective foundling), a huge yak head, a pair of bears on wheeled stools, a bounding tiger attached to its operator, and more. Everything was beautifully made, but could have benefited from some more attention to performance details. There was just too much for the piece to hold – the story seemed to lose the courage of its initial conviction, get a bit lost and then end with a bump, and few of the design and production choices were fully explored. But if Pangolin could decide what they most want to do, they could probably do it well.

There is another dead father in Lilly Through The Dark, the second production of the River People after last year’s well-received The Ordinaries, and again at Bedlam. Lilly, after her father’s death, travelled to reclaim him from a grotesque, surreal purgatory. Visually the show was both striking and coherent – although the River People must be confident that Tim Burton isn’t overly litigious – and the simple accompaniment of live mandolin was in keeping with the handmade aesthetic. The coherence and precision of the ensemble performance was a joy that carried us through the dark story. There were some pleasing puppetry choices, including the crude newspaper figure of the dead father, and a pair of hanged men – a highlight – with human heads on puppet bodies, bantering away from beyond the grave. At heart though, I didn’t feel a strong enough logic for Lilly, the protagonist, as a puppet, and this wasn’t helped by a vacancy in her as a character: she faced awkwardness and difficulty in her journey, but never a real moral challenge, nor a convincing danger – her supposed nemesis, the villain Rotten Pockets, wasn’t defeated but meekly melted into an agreeable helper. And rather like the Lost Spectacles and Terrible Infants, the human-performer characters in Lilly seemed hampered rather than helped by the earnestly mannered physicality and vocal tics of their performances. There was much that was powerfully theatrical here – and some nuggets of truth about grief, when Lilly spoke to and finally relinquished her father, accepting that she will not perfectly recall him – but it could be more affecting with a stronger, simpler, story and less aesthetic contrivance.

We met yet more dead parents in Little Bulb Theatre’s Total Theatre Award- and Fringe First-winning show Crocosmia. Both of them, this time: the three Brackenberg children’s mother and father are killed – we are gently and manner-of-factly told, and all the more brutally for it – in a car crash. The greatest achievements here are the accurate recreation of the range of childhood responses to grief, and the wonderfully open storytelling, with a great mess of objects (including a chewed-carrot goldfish and music from an on-stage record player), and merry swapping of characters and costumes. At one point, the children perform memories of their parents in the ‘Brackenberg Battenberg Theatre’, while gleefully eating the cake ‘puppets’. When, at the end of the show, we all blew up balloons for little Freya’s eighth birthday party, and her tiny lightbulb sprouted and grew, there can have been few dry eyes about. This was a show where rough puppetry, cleverly deployed, worked perfectly.

But some shows need their puppetry to work more sophisticatedly. In The Empty Space’s deeply touching Heartbreak Soup, Laura Lindow’s story – more complex than it initially seemed – of a boy and his heart transplant donor, the magic of the telling is led by objects from hospital bed draws, tiny lights, and monsters from the bedsheets – used to stage a memorable battle with the ‘Great Aorta’. The boys themselves are Cuddy, ‘the blue boy’ (very sweetly played by Scott Turnbull), who has a congenital heart defect and is, at age 11, waiting for an imminent second transplant; and Dan (Chris Price), ‘the pink boy’, who at 12 is slightly more knowing and experienced but has died, we discover, in an accident. At points the two are played by puppets as well, Cuddy as a soft doll-like figure and Dan as a beautiful creation of simply folded pink blanket. There is room for the clarity and expressiveness of these puppets to be heightened – which parts and points of the boys’ lives do they represent? – which might be used to bring more detail of the story into the present and lessen the need for a tiny bit too much explication at the end.

At this year’s festival there was puppetry abounding, with many different forms and functions. And if too often its use was marred by being out of balance with the other elements of a production, it was almost always ambitious and beyond the frequently tokenistic use of puppetry of recent years. It is clear that making puppetry work theatrically needs, primarily, a return to the simplest understanding of drama – the interaction of form with content, of storytelling with style, of communication with spectacle. But the festival, for puppetry, was peppered with myriad moments of brilliance and a truly inspiring array of young and older artists engaging with the possibilities of the form. The right questions are being asked.


Top of the page images l to r:
Gomito Productions Before We Remember,
Kora and Paper Cinema Night Flyer,
Pangolin's Teatime The Last Yak

Other images top to bottom:
Lost Spectacles Lost in the Wind
Sharmanka's Master and Margharita
Les Enfants Terribles
The River People Lilly Through the Dark

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