by Jeffrey Day
Now that I’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s probably time to address that subhead on my festival overview story that says I’m a “sucker for puppets.”
My first experience with puppets used in a serious theatrical production was Peter and Wendy at the festival in 1996. That still remains one of my most thrilling theater experiences and opened my eyes to what puppets could do. Not that puppets had not been used in theater for hundreds of years, especially in the Far East and Europe (and the more traditional Colla Marionettes had been coming to the festival for many years), but I’d never seen anything like that before.
Puppets have continued to make appearances at the festival during the past 20 years — sometimes well, sometimes not. Basil Twist, the puppet master for Peter and Wendy, staged Ottorini Respighi’s puppet opera Sleeping Beauty in the Forest at the festival in 2005, and while it was a bit clunky, it was charming and magical.
In Columbia, where I live, there has been a marionette theater for 30 years, mostly doing fairy tale-based kid’s shows. About a decade ago, some of the puppeteers there expanded the offerings with more adult fare using all sorts of imaginative puppetry techniques. During the past few years they’ve mounted several “puppetry slams” in Columbia. Not everything has been great, but they’ve done some amazing work by puppetry artists from around the Southeast and they're getting an incredible response. I couldn’t attend the last one because it was sold out far in advance.
I've seen puppet shows throughout Europe, in Vietnam and Uzbekistan.
The winter before Twist did Sleeping Beauty I visited him in New York. We went out for coffee and he ordered a tall, frothy drink which came with a long, thin spoon. There at the sidewalk table he brought that spoon to life.
Something similar happened over the weekend when the director and a couple of the puppeteers from Midsummer sat down for a “Conversations” piece and one of them turned a water bottle into an interesting character on the spot. They also showed off a couple of the crazy fairy puppets and a gas bottle, one of the many homemade instruments that would provide the score.
Getting an advance view and looking at stellar resumes (some of the Midsummer team created War Horse) can be a dangerous thing, setting up unrealistic expectations. But I’ve been getting the story before the show for years and can keep my expectations in check.
What I didn’t expect was this mess of Midsummer with gross misuse of puppets and play. This is possibly one of the most misguided plays I’ve ever seen at the festival or anywhere.
Let’s talk about the poor puppets. They are operated by actors, who sometimes put them down and start acting without them. Sometimes it’s part of the concept, sometimes not. When the actors are freed from the puppets, they really shine.
The more fantastical “puppets” — such as a plain one made with four wooden boards and a Puck comprised of basket, sticks, and old-fashioned blowtorch operated by three people — never come to life. I’ve rarely seen such dead puppets. The actor playing Bottom is transformed into a kind of donkey puppet. If you recall, Bottom is transformed into a donkey — or an ass — in the play. Here he literally becomes an ass, placed in a donkey shaped contraption, his bare butt becoming his head and his face becoming his butt. Bottom, ass — get it? I hear some audience members were offended by the bare butt. I was offended that such an obvious idea was executed, and so badly to butt — I mean boot.
Then there’s the play. Midsummer is complicated. It has humans involved in love triangles, gods, fairies, transformations, characters bewitched and a play within a play. It has a big cast with actors usually playing several roles. I’ve seen it many times, I’ve read it. I know the play. Even I got lost in this production with puppet characters overlapping — or not — with their flesh and blood operators.
Yes, there are a few magical moments. Most of them happen in the last five minutes of this slogging, plodding production. That’s bit late to start breathing life into the puppets.
My dear puppet friends, I’m sorry. I know it’s not your fault. Can we change that headline?
I was a little disappointed to see the festival didn’t have more in the way of contemporary dance, which has always been one of my favorite things. One thing the festival has had a great deal of recently is physical-theater-circus type performances, most of which I’ve missed.
I got both with Le Grand C by Compagnie XY. Think of it as modern dance stacked three or four or more high. If all these amazing folks did was somersaults, climbed high on one another shoulders, and jetted through the air like missiles, that would be impressive. But there’s so much more: a number of abstract narratives wending their way through, funny asides, beautiful choreography. It’s just magical — even with the accordion music score.
The guy sitting beside me during Le Grand C kept up a running commentary. It was more than just “Wows” and gasps of delight, but full sentences. In the atmosphere of Le Grand C it was OK and I was happy that he was happy.
Spoleto audience used to be peculiar thing in South Carolina. Folks were not afraid of expressing their negative opinions, even if it only consisted of withheld applause or applause that was ironic in the “I’m sure glad that’s over” way. They’ve become more polite, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
My major issue these days, not just at the festival, isn’t the phones or the unwrapping of lozenges or coughing. It’s jangly bracelets adding un-scored percussion. Dear Jangly Bracelet Lady, How would you like it if every 90 seconds I gave the arm rest three quick raps?
Speaking of percussion, Steven Schick was back on the chamber music stage for the second concert joining cellist Alisa Weilerstein for Osvaldo Golijov’s Mariel for Cello and Marimba. A number of years ago Schick and another cellist formed a duo and began commissioning works like this one.
“There was nothing written for this instrumental combination — and some people believe it should remain so,” Schick said. He was being funny and charming, which he is, as well as being an incredible musician.
As series director Geoff Nuttall was preparing to pedal away on his bike after the concert, I grabbed him and asked how he felt about the reception Schick, the first percussionist to every play on the series, had received. Nuttall said he was a little disappointed, especially to the reaction to the solo percussion piece Schick played on the first concert. I told him I thought the response had been surprisingly warm and enthusiastic. Expectations again, I suppose.
And let’s not forget about our theme. In introducing Mariel, Schick explained that Golijov had written it in memory of a friend who died unexpectedly. “It’s a celebration of the last moments of life before death overtook him. About being very much alive before he dies, that it’s over so fast, so much sooner than you’d like.”