by Mark Levenson
Based on S. Ansky's play
Translation by S. Morris Engel
Directed by Reg Bradley
J.C.C. Newton MA /
end of East Coast tour, Feb. 28 & 29

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The current interest in theatre with puppets for adult audiences vindicates the work of such troupes such as Portland, Oregon's "Tears of Joy" Theatre, presenting serious work since 1971. This production of Mark Levenson's version of S. Ansky's folkloric play, which first came to international attention in 1920 at the Habima theatre in Moscow directed by Vachtangkov, won an UNIMA Citation in 1994. Tears of Joy has revived this piece, with refinements, since. As Levenson points out, this production of "Between Two Worlds" is an excellent example of the dictum that works adapted from the theatrical canon as puppetry work best not when imitating the live stage but when using puppet techniques to go beyond it.

Levenson has simplified the original by eliminating minor characters to concentrate on the central figures in Ansky's fable; Chonnon, the poor scholar who returns after his premature death to inhabit Leah, the rich man's daughter and his soul-mate; her father, Reb Sender, who has a guilty secret of which he unconsciously aware and Rabbi Azreal, whose court reveals the truth. The ghost of Choconnon's murdered father returns to that court to reveal the pact he and Sender had made years ago to unite their unborn children in marriage. The Rabbi nevertheless rules strictly that no compact can be made for that which does yet exist, and exorcises the dybbuk of Chonnon from Leah. The scholar's love is so strong, however, that he returns as a spirit. Leah expires and joins him in "the true world," leaving this mortal plain.

Versions of his play have been done around the world since it's premiere just after the author's death. Productions have used off-stage voices, actors in stylized make-up, and other effects to somehow achieve its sense of otherworldliness. Indeed, Levenson's preferred title "Between Two World's" is Ansky's subtitle. But puppetry provides the simplest and clearest approach to the problem. In this production two-foot high direct-contact full- bodied puppets perform on abstract table stages, backed by stylized rocky scenic units. A Ner Tamid hangs over the set. The visible puppeteers in earth-tones--perhaps suggesting golems--subtly invoke a sense of manipulation by fate. The dybbuk appears as a puppet-sized mask worn by a puppeteer hovering over the puppet of Leah. After death, her spirit appears as a similar mask which joins its soulmate. On the other hand, the shade of Choconnon's father appears as a faceless actor draped in a prayer shawl. That shawl is then opened across the back of the set and a shadow show of the ghost's murder on the road fills in the back story. Earlier in the piece, the young scholar's mystic studies in Kabbalah are symbolized by large Hebrew characters dancing in the air above him, followed by the puppet levitating and soaring all around the expressionist setting, designed by Mary Robinette Kowal and Christopher L. Harris. The puppets, which Kowal painted, have a touch of the stylization reflecting the Habima production; the scholar's face is green, the Rabbi's blue, though the heroine and her father are flesh-toned. A minor figure of a poor crone is joined by a group puppet of dancers for Leah's wedding dance. Those puppets have chargeable faces derived from Bunraku traditions.

Various adaptations of this play, including ballet and opera versions, have used other solutions to imply the influence of the spirit world. Tony Kuschner's 1997 Public Theatre production had the father's ghost speak through the court clerk. This 80 minute show is probably closest to Ansky's exploration of fading Jewish traditions in the early 20th century. The company has honed their manipulation to make the most of simple movements and the relationship between the figures and the operators behind them. It's possible that "Between Two Worlds" will return to the East Coast next season.

The Puppet Showplace Theatre of Brookline recently sponsored a revival of three music theatre pieces employing puppets presented at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music in Cambridge. Susan J. Vitucci's "Love's Fowl", an NPR favorite, the retelling of La Pulcina Piccola--Chicken Little--as an Itaian opera with music by Henry Krieger got the most press attention. The show's use of video projection so that a larger audience can see the puppets built around clothespins plus projected supertitles is quite captivating, as the heroine's showbiz biography unfolds. "Love's Fowl" alternated with "Opening Night Carmen", created and performed by Julie Goell. This versatile mime and Commedia specialist, who enters as the cleaning lady to the final strains of Bizet's opera, then proceeds to recreate the work as a "mopera" using mostly cleaning utensils as her puppets, playing and singing all the roles, except Michaela, who's been dropped. Her only accompaniment--at times--is an upright base which incidentally serves as a hatrack. Besides the characters from the opera, she also embodies the impresario, the doorman, the conductor, the stage manager, a rich patron, and the critics. Her "Carmen" was a bravura performance in the best traditions of clowning. As an extra added attraction, Liz Joyce from the Goat in a Boat Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY and Steven Widerman from the City, presented their version of Arthur A. Penn's 1920's school cantata, "Sing a Song of Sixpence" in a small recital hall. With Widerman singing from the Steinway and Joyce dressed as a parlor maid, the piece was performed in toto by Joyce using a large pie rolled in on a tea cart. Her ingenious hand-carved puppets are charming and the sly wit behind their oh-so-proper performance of Penn's operetta-inspired piece, made the whole thing delightfully silly.

Though puppets were used on occasion in serious theatrical performances during much of the 20th century, it seems that in this new millennium, audiences and the critical establishment have become more willing to accept puppet production into the mainstream of the Theatre, especially the mixed forms being practiced these days. Recent efforts in NYC, including Dan Hurlin's "Hiroshima Maiden" or Peter Hall's "Animal Farm" by the Orwell Project--not to mention Broadway's "Avenue Q" or Marty Robinson's new improved Audrey II in "Little Shop..."--are pointing towards similar innovative efforts. In Tears of Joys' hometown of Portland OR, Performance Works NW along with Signal Light Puppet Theatre is currently premiering "The Wild Child" exploring the question of nature vrs. nuture. The two worlds of the realistic stage and older more symbolic forms are coming into balance again. The only danger is that puppetry will be used for inappropriate projects by unskilled presenters. Or that the form is chosen for economic rather than artistic reasons.

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