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Not for the timid: New puppetry at the Walker

There's a certain theory in the arts: When the going gets rough, revert to timidity. There are a number of arts organizations in the United States that, with shrinking budgets and uncertain donors, have decided just to play it safe. There is art that they know will please their patrons, and that's what they will stick to until the economy recovers, at which point they can begin programming more challenging work.
 
This view doesn't seem to have entered the head of anybody at the Walker Art Center, thank God. And while I don't know what its bank balance looks like, every time I visit, it seems to be doing simply gangbusters. They have very cleverly figured out that Minnesotans are especially fond of big events, and they have equally cleverly set about turning pretty much everything into a big event. Their Thursday nights, underwritten by Target in such a way that admittance to the galleries is free, are quite popular among local scenesters.

Last night, the Yves Klein exhibit was host to a dance troupe called SuperGroup, who dressed in monochromatic costumes and performed a semi-improvised piece of choreography inspired by Klein. And so, when I arrived at 7 p.m., the Walker's attendance seemed perfectly healthy, at least if you checked the number of people at the bar, which is the trick I use.

 
I was there for a regular series the Walker offers called "Adventures in New Puppetry," which probably deserves an award for truth in advertising — it really is never less than an adventure. I'm predisposed to liking puppetry. It's historically been a poor person's art form, because you can put together a puppet show just by manipulating objects you find in a rubbish bin, or make out of newspaper and flour paste — an opera, in the meanwhile, might cost as much as a million dollars to mount.

As a result of this, puppetry has tended to be a showcase for theater that is sometimes balmier, sometimes more political, than you might find in a pricier production. This is true in America — think of the Bread and Puppets theater and our own In the Heart of the Beast — and it's especially true in Europe, as demonstrated by the show I saw last night. Titled "Show Your Face!", the piece is a collaboration between three groups of artists, and is both unabashedly political and, at times, quite mad.

"Show Your Face!" at the Walker Art Center
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
"Show Your Face!" at the Walker Art Center

The artists are Slovene movement theater Betontanc, Latvian object theater troupe Umka.lv, and Slovene electronic group Silence, and they collaborate to tell a story that starts off a bit like something you might find in a Hitchcock movie: A faceless man in a nameless city finds himself accused of a crime he didn't commit and goes on the run, assisted by a mysterious woman who may or may not have his interests at heart.

But that summary makes the story sound far more classically plotted than it is. The story is episodic, and the episodes don't lead naturally into each other, but erupt from one another. The play seems to propose a question with a horrifying act of terrorism: What would cause this? But it doesn't go about answering this in any rigorous way: The episodes in the play don't seem to lead to a necessary conclusion. Indeed, the faceless man at the center of the play doesn't seem informed by previous scenes at all — he'll get hanged in one scene and appear in another, unharmed, and later will have a romantic idyll by the sea with his mystery woman without seeming to have any memories of the fact that he was just brutally tortured.
 
And it's not as though these scenes are simply out of order. They can't be restructured to form a cohesive narrative. And I think there is a reason for that: I don't think the faceless man in this story represents one character's experiences, but many, and the reason I think so is because director Matjaz Pograjc told Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr that in preparing for this production, he researched 100 people's stories, from Slovenia and Latvia, who had their identities erased under totalitarian rule, becoming, as Pograjc describes it, people without a face. So the storyline to "Show Your Face!" isn't one continuous narrative, but instead a collage of experiences.
 
This collage protagonist is represented simply by a child's snow suit that the performers collectively manipulate, some holding its feet, some its arms, and one its head, a bit like how a character in Japanese kabuki is manipulated by multiple puppeteers. They imbue this empty snowsuit with considerable life, and it is, frankly, more than a little adorable, which makes the violence that is done unto it a bit of a shock.

The puppet moves through a world that is either inhabited by the play's performers or created by them. Sometimes they take roles in the play, and sometimes they grab whatever is nearby to create simple puppets — a pile of the sort of stuff that you might find in your kitchen or garage becomes dogs, insects, birds, fish and, at times, faceless characters who dance with each other, or march together to their deaths. Much of this is accompanied by the three-man group Silence, who play piano and saxophone, and sound a bit like glam-era David Bowie was singing over the soundtracks of Gabriel Yared.
 
The show put the audience I saw it with off-balance. The performance groups collectively possesses a satiric sensibility and a taste for the grotesque, and they don't blanch when it comes to representing violence, including sexual violence. It is often hard to tell whether they intend to be funny or appalling, and whether their more explicit political moments are in earnest or deliberately over-the-top.

There was quite a lot of uncertain laughter during last night's performance, and some of it came during an extended sequence that was about as harrowing a representation of political torture as I have ever seen staged. I am not certain whether this was because the show's tone was inconsistent, or if we simply haven't seen enough of this sort of theater to know when it was being satiric and when it wasn't; I'm also not certain it was a bad thing.

It will be perplexing to some, though. American popular art has a great love for clear narrative and certainty of tone, and we don't often get exposed to work that is so ambiguous in both areas. But the program is called "Adventures in New Puppetry," and it wouldn't be much of an adventure if we watched something with the narrative and tonal definition of a television sitcom.
 
"Show Your Face!" will be performed again tonight and tomorrow night at 8p.m., and Umka.lv will offer a seminar on object puppetry on Saturday at 11 a.m.

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Comments (1)

Great review, but one typo. "Kabuki" is not puppet theatre. It's live actors. You mean "Bunraku," which is puppet theatre. If you are interested in learning more about Kabuki, please check out our website, www.jetaanc.org/kabuki Here is the sentence I'm responding to: "This collage protagonist is represented simply by a child's snow suit that the performers collectively manipulate, some holding its feet, some its arms, and one its head, a bit like how a character in Japanese kabuki is manipulated by multiple puppeteers."