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Year of the Puppeteer

December 17, 2011

On the similarities of two productions happening in close proximity to one another in Berkeley.

After seeing of The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre a couple of nights ago (go see it if you're in the Bay Area -- they've just extended by three weeks and tickets are selling fast) a friend wrote to exchange thoughts about the remarkable and coincidental similarities between Kneehigh Theatre's spiraling and engrossing production and the show that's currently playing right next door at the Aurora Theatre -- an adaptation of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale.

In some ways, I suppose it is a remarkable coincidence to see two shows with so much in common happening in adjacent theaters: "Devil ... rhyming couplets ... on stage musicians ... morality play about easy wealth/greed ... puppet ... dancing ... and on and on," wrote my friend in an email about the links that the two shows share.

What strikes me though is how two shows with so much in common can be so different in terms of quality though. I admired Muriel Maffre's puppeteering work in The Soldier's Tale. But it was about all I admired. The production was otherwise over-labored and slow.

The Wild Bride, by contrast, is a wild ride. It grabs you with a vice-like grip that won't let go -- literally, in fact, as hands are a major metaphor and source of visual imagery throughout the work -- from the moment the devil appears on stage sitting under a tree playing a laconic blues song and thinking about how much mischief he might cause to an unsuspecting family. What I appreciated most about this dark fairy tale was the multi-dexterity of the performers, who not only act brilliantly but are also excellent multi-instrumentalists, puppeteers, singers and dancers.

Ultimately, though, is it that much of a coincidence to see two plays that make use of many of the same theatrical tropes? It seems like one can hardly go anywhere at the moment without stumbling across actor-instrumentalist-puppeteers telling dark fairytales. British directors like John Doyle and Kneehigh's Emma Rice have inspired American directors to create work along these lines in recent years and the Brits in turn were most likely turned on to the format by Eastern European auteurs. So I wonder if the shared mise-en-scene attributes are simply part and parcel of an overall "physical theatre" aesthetic that's become so trendy these days?

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