Mature puppet show appealing with visuals

April 22, 2011

Jamie Thomson for the Drexel Triangle
April 22, 2011

I have a bit of a thing for puppets, so naturally Basil Twist’s “Petrushka” caught my eye when I was perusing the immense directory of events affiliated with the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. To top it off, the show was just up Walnut Street at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Penn’s campus.

“Petrushka” was originally a ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky, which debuted in 1911, and performed in Paris by the Ballet Russes Company. The work has been adapted in a variety of ways over the past 100 years, but Twist adds an intriguing twist by turning a ballet about puppets into a puppet show.

The show was prefaced by Stravinsky’s “Sonata for Two Pianos,” which was accompanied by an abstract puppet performance — like your iTunes visualizer but better, because it seemed to have emotion. Twin Russian pianists Julia and Irina Elkina played grand pianos facing each other in front of an ornate gold frame containing the puppets. White rectangular slabs spun around a central point like a loose windmill, later breaking apart and being joined by arc shapes. It was like a visual palate cleansing, preparing the audience for the show to come.

The story itself is almost too simple — a tragic love triangle. A brief puppet show occurs at a Russian carnival and then three puppets — the Ballerina, the Moor and Petrushka (an archetypical jester) — are put away in their respective compartments. The puppets are actually magic and continue life on their own when not being manipulated by their master. Petrushka resents being put away, but his prison is brightened as the Ballerina comes to visit. He dances enthusiastically in attempt to impress her, but she does not seem interested. The Ballerina departs and goes to see the Moor, who is practicing his swordsmanship in comfortable-looking quarters. Clearly more interested in the manly Moor, she dances until he is seduced, and the puppets get a little PG-13. Of course, at that moment Petrushka walks in on them and attacks the Moor, realizing too late that they are sorely mismatched. The remainder of the show is a chase through the carnival, the puppets dodging colorful sashes, dancing flowers and even a giant bear atop a big red ball. In the end, the Moor catches up and easily strikes down Petrushka. It seems like a sad ending as the lifeless puppet is covered by a sudden snowfall, but then he appears atop the gold frame of the stage, and then again in the rafters above the audience — his spirit released to wander on its own whims.

In addition to being a delightful 55-minute respite from reality, “Petrushka” is an elegant commentary on the medium of puppetry. In the program notes Twist writes, “When we believe in or relate to a puppet we connect to the very pure essence of a spirit or feeling. Puppets have no other life apart from the stage (unlike an actor) — no sheer purpose than what they can convey during a performance … I invite the audience to let yourselves go — to believe in and feel for Petrushka. Then for a moment, step away and witness that feeling for a bundle of wood and cloth.”

Putting his craft in that perspective, Twist demonstrates how much power he and his nine puppeteers have over the audience. Through highly coordinated movement of inanimate objects set to music, they trick our senses into seeing life and emotion where there is none. During the show, a steady rhythm started to develop in my perception as I would periodically remember that there wasn’t a little person inside the Ballerina, the Moor or Petrushka when they would bend or float in such a way that wasn’t quite humanly possible, or when one of the black-gloved hands of a puppeteer was particularly noticeable. The show is elegantly choreographed and flowed smoothly as the puppeteers were largely invisible as they climbed around each other to guide the puppets. The show has wrapped up its Philadelphia run, but if you ever get the opportunity to see a Basil Twist production, I would strongly recommend it.

The Harold Prince Theatre in the Annenberg was perfect for this show — a great little black box venue, much more intimate than the larger Zellerbach Theatre. Both see a lot of noteworthy performances each year, so it’s worth keeping an eye on for something a little different to do near campus.