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BOOK REVIEWS

Marionette Theatre in Quanzhou
Robin Ruizendaal
Brill
ISBN 978-90-04-15104-8
€ 120.00 / US$ 161.00 Hardback
www.brill.nl

Reviewed by John M Blundall

Anyone who has seen the extraordinary work of the marionette performers from Quanzhou is left without any doubt that they are the finest in the world. Some years ago whilst I was undertaking a study of puppet theatre in China for the Ministry of Culture, my stay in The Quanzhou Marionette Theatre was certainly the most inspiring.

Marionette Theatre in Quanzhou by Robin Ruizendaal, is the most important and exhaustive work on the subject. Through the 470 pages of the book every minute detail is explored and explained.

The Fujian region of China, in which Quanzhou exists, is one of the oldest and richest in terms of the puppeteer’s art. This new book deals with the early origins and the sources of the repertoire, and the marionette theatre companies and musicians – from the Tang to late Quing, and the Republican period – then concentrates on three companies from 1949 to 2003.

The education of the puppet theatre is analysed, including the now closed Quanzhou Art School teaching programme, course and structure. This is followed by in-depth accounts of puppets’ construction and manipulation, and the stage, repertoire and performance context, a ritual prelude. The book finally includes thoughts on the future of research into the art and craft, translated plays, and an exhaustive bibliography, collected manuscripts, and audio-visual material.

Puppet Theatre
Maija Baric
Hawthorn Press
ISBN 978-1-903458-72-3
£14.99 Hardback
www.hawthornpress.com

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

A lovely new book, from Maija Baric of Puppet Theatre Sampo (from Finland), published by Hawthorn Press who specialise in gentle books for young readers, beautifully illustrated, and in arts, crafts and social ecology books inspired by the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. (Puppet theatre is seen as a vital part of the Waldorf curriculum which is the heart of the worldwide network of ‘Steiner’ schools and arts centres.)

This book – aimed at children and their parents, teachers and carers – is structured around twelve ‘themes’, taking the emerging young puppeteer on a journey through all the main elements and forms of puppetry, using simple found objects and natural materials.

The journey takes us from puppetry in its most elemental form (theme one: Puppets made from Objects) through finger puppets, hand puppets and peek-a-boo puppets and on to tabletop, paper theatre, rod puppets, marionettes and finally (theme twelve) to shadow theatre. The introduction to this last section will give you a flavour of the tone and approach of the book: ‘The small shadow theatre stage shown in the following instructions may look like a TV monitor, but instead of speed and fast-paced image sequences, its power and attraction lie in the opposite: peace and quietude’. A truly magical book, heartily recommended for home and school alike.


FILM REVIEW

Dante’s Inferno 
Horse Hospital, London
1 December 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Toy theatre in the UK is associated, rightly or wrongly, with history buffs with a bent for reviving old-fashioned moralistic melodramas and collecting antique sheets of paper figures. Dante’s Inferno, the first feature-length toy theatre film produced in Hollywood, emerges from a strikingly different toy theatre culture. American toy theatre is a vehicle for political satire, popular radicalism and resistance to technology with roots in the Bread and Puppet Theater. Dante’s Inferno, which features the artistry of chief puppeteer, voice artist, co-producer and co-writer Paul Zaloom (renowned object theatre artist and former Bread and Puppet ringmaster), plugs directly into this oppositional puppet scene.

The film is an updating of the first cantiche of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia composed in early 14th century Italy, which sees the poet, in the middle of his life’s journey, awakening in a dark wood and then receiving a guided tour of the nine circles of hell by Roman poet Virgil. Dante’s Inferno transfers the poem to urban America. Slacker Dante Alighieri (voiced by Dermot Mulroney), dressed in jeans and hooded sweatshirt, wakes up with a hangover on the corner of a dead-end street near a congested freeway. Virgil (voiced by James Crowell) takes him through an underpass and past hoards of protestors, condemned to an eternity of picketing for being non-committal in life, and into an urban hell, replete with a nauseating taco stand, a gated community with torturous hot tubs, a disco with homosexuals punished to dance for eternity, a red light district with philanderers condemned to eternal fornication, an office building with insider traders disembowelling one another, a Ulysses shadow puppet show and so on. The sins are both eternal and timely: the third circle, where the gluttonous are doomed to stuff their faces forever, is said to be undergoing a ‘construction boom’. At the journey’s end, Dante and Virgil interrupt Lucifer’s fondue of dead souls and narrowly escape by a desperate plunge into the devil’s buttocks. Some of the dead dictators and mass murderers reviled worldwide are obvious targets, while others are the bugbears of American liberal society – Spiro Agnew, L. Ron Hubbard, Strom Thurmond and Dick Cheney (whose soul is condemned to hell before his body dies). When Dante queries the factuality of the sins of a group of popes, Virgil tells him to ‘go forth and google’.

The film, shot on HD with loving attention to sound, music, voices and figures, is of the highest professional standards. Dialogue is scatological and filled with one-liners, the puppetry directed by Zaloom is inventive and self-aware, figures and sets by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet (inspired by Gustave Dore’s Commedia illustrations) are cleverly constructed and direction and editing by Sean Meredith is fast-paced and resourceful, making the most of the inherent theatricalism of the medium. More than 500 paper figures and 40 sets were constructed for the film, and no CGI (outside the credits) was used. The Horse Hospital screening, attended by Meredith, Birk and Pignolet and an audience of about 50, was the film’s UK premiere. The DVD (planned for 2008) will be a joy for all puppet-lovers. In the meantime, catch the film if you can, wherever it plays.

www.dantefilm.com

 

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