Life’s Lessons from Puppets

Handspring Puppet Company’s Il Riturno d’Ulisse Photo Credit: Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

While much of the world seems to be overrun by robots (witness Stephen Colbert’s repeated references to them and Westworld), I have always been more intrigued by puppets, starting with the purchase of a marionette at the Howe Caverns’ gift shop. A treasured memory was watching a bunraku performance in Osaka, Japan many years ago.

Puppetry has always been a passion for Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, which is why the two Cape Town residents founded Handspring Puppet Company in 1981. Although they are perhaps best known for their work in designing the puppets for the Tony Award-winning War Horse, it was their recent staging at the Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival that served as my introduction to them and their company.

A mashup of puppets, opera and Avant Garde film, Handspring Puppet Company’s  1998 collaboration with Director William Kentridge – The Return of Ulysses – is stunning example of the theater’s ability to surprise, delight and make us think and is truly in keeping with the Festival’s aim in exploring the power of art and music to reveal the complexity of our interior lives.

Based on the opera by Claudio Monteverdi, one of the earliest opera composers, The Return of Ulysses tells the story of the final chapters of Homer’s Odyssey: Ulysses’ reunion with Penelope at the palace in Ithaca. Written in the same year as circulation was discovered (1640), Handspring and Kentridge reimagined the stage as that of an operating theater (historically, people would pay money to watch medical operations as theater) and animated footage from the History of the Main Complaint is displayed on a screen in the background.

As the show opens, the singers are accompanied by historical instruments played by the Ricercar Consort, named from the Italian word ricercare – to seek – and apropos of the story as Ulysses seeks to return home to his wife. The prologue introduces Human Frailty, Fortune, Love and Time, as they discuss Ulysses’ life and fate, and I am struck by the words, “My limbs are weak, but I have wings.” A fitting anthem for malaise of the times.

Later, in a post-performance discussion with Kohler and Jones, we are given more insight into the unusual triad among singer, puppeteer and puppet to work in harmony with one another. Furthermore, they admonish the singers to look up at their respective puppets and to show their breath – both of which are inimical to an opera performer’s training. But, as Jones and Kohler point out, without such an approach, the work falls flat – breath is indeed life.

 

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