The Broad Theatre has offered Puppet-assisted or Puppet Shows before (Basil Twist) and this season it’s audience delighted at Handspring Puppet Co. and Bristol Old Vic’s inventive A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
It seems fitting that Shakespeare’s ebullient play about the transformative powers of love should be recreated with post- modern minimalist puppetry. Handspring Puppet Company seems devoted to pre-industrial techniques, many from the 17th century era of automata.
The free wheeling found object puppetry and the working class costumes invite us into the make-believe; the actors mesmerize us with their concentration; working their puppets they are like children at play- turning boxes and sheets into whole cities. Indeed, director Tom Morris (known for “War Horse”) encourages us to play along in his program notes:
“Without you, they are inert bundles of twig and metal. With you, especially if you are mad, poetical, or in love, they can achieve anything you want.”
Dressed in shabby mix of British working class garb (Army surplus kit bags, suspenders, ragged sweaters, even red tartan punk bondage pants and winkle picker shoes) cast members work the house pre-show with cockney jokes, suggesting the tumult of the original Old Globe whose standing “Groundlings” audience bustled with vendors. On stage they occasionally indulge in modern asides, to suggest the rowdy byplay of Shakespeare’s day.
At play’s beginning Theseus, Duke of Athens (David Ricardo-Pearce) plans his wedding to the Amazon queen, Hippolyta. Independent sculptress Hippolyta, played with a close to the vest androgynous charm by Saskia Portway, prepares her wedding gifts.
Egeus is provoked because his daughter Hermia, in love with Lysander, refuses to marry Demetrius, the man he has chosen for her. Under Athenian Law, she must obey her father or face death. He appeals to Duke Theseus, who in the patriarchal spirit of the day offers her another choice; either marry Demetrius or live chaste life as a follower of the maiden Goddess Diana. Hippolyta, the original feminist, put off by her fiancée’s “justice”, bides her time.
Eloping Hermia and Lysander escape to the forest, followed by Demetrius and Helena, who’s love sick over him.
The four young lovers, Hermia (Akiya Henry), Lysander (Alex Felton), Helena (Naomi Cranston) and Demetrius (Kyle Lima) function like a mini-swarm. It is perhaps a fault of the text that the four lovers seem interchangeable. Eventually Lysander and Demetrius come into focus as their competiveness is tested by comic reversals of their love objects.
Lean Kyle Lima and Alex Felton give pleasing readings of Shakespeare and charm as the earnest, easily offended swains
Naomi Cranston’s breathless delivery of some speeches and frequent counter-intuitive mugging began to annoy. Akiya Henry as pint-sized Hermia (who takes umbrage at being called a puppet) comes into her own in the second act. Toted around stage, she brings silent comedy energy to her physical work that lights up the stage.
In the forest, Fairy Queen Titania , attended by her fairies, is feuding with Fairy King Oberon, over an Indian changeling boy under her protection. Oberon uses the shape shifting Puck, and his love potion to embarrass Titania and exact his revenge.
As often happens the Play within the Play grabs focus from the more thoughtful weavings of the mortal and fairy lovers. Colin Michael Carmichael (Peter Quince/Thisby’s father), Christoper Keegan (Francis Flute, the bellows-mender/Thisby) Salkat Ahamed (Snug, the joiner; Lion), Fionn Gill (Tom Snout, the tinker/ Pyramus’ father, Wall), Lucy Tuck (Robin Starveling, the tailor (Thisby’s mother) and the force of nature known as Miltos Yerolomeu (Nick Bottom, the weaver- Pyramus) play the “rude mechanicals” who “rehearse most obscenely and courageously” their play to be presented at the Duke of Athen’s wedding feast, and reappear as fairy, forest and creature puppets, choral singers and musicians.
The first half takes some getting used to, it’s a bit cluttered and overworked once the lovers enter the forest. The cast rushes about using planks to create forest bowers; it distracts. For all the interesting moves Puck makes, I missed his poetic through-line, and the multiple voices obscured Shakespeare’s words.
The second act soars. Playing Wall, lanky Fionn Gill builds an extended sight gag. The chink through which the lovers kiss is his legs (and they are long enough to get tangled.) The lover’s use crude wooden puppets, wooden herms with carved faces to portray the kissing lovers, and poor Wall gets whacked in his privates with each unrehearsed kiss. Climbing around with bricks tied to his head he pulls a series of classic pratfalls.
Rustics Peter Quince, Bottom et al’s earnest, bumbling entertainment “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby”, Shakespeare’s satire of the process of mounting a play, brings down the house. Shakespeare’s father was a glover, the class of rural artisan that might have put on such a play.
Colin Michael Carmichael as the man-loving Quince struggles to rehearse his hapless crew, occasionally lobbing in a pained correction, even during their performance for the Duke. Supreme narcissist Bottom angles to play all the best parts.
Keegan’s British underplaying as both Flute/ Thisby and anxious courtier Philostrate is a lovely foil to Yerlemeus’ volcanic Zorba-esque presence, matched by Salkat Ahamed and long-faced Fionn Gill’s physical clowning, and Lucy Tuck’s deft, quick changes.
Miltos Yerolemou (“Game of Thrones”), a seasoned performer with vaudevilian chops, trained at Le Coq in Paris (France’s preeminent clown school) and studied with Vaudeville legend Johnny Hutch.
At our performance he heard me tittering in the front row and worked me like his shill for a series of uproarious double takes. I’m a retired comedienne and I recognized schtickla, he probably worked someone front row center every night, but he filled it with life.
When Bottom is transformed into Titania’s love, the company takes its cue from his name. It’s a visual pun (which wore a little thin for me) bracketing by two astonishing transformations. Yerolemou somersaults onto a neo- 17th century wheeled rig, as a cast member strips him of his pants. He’s left with a furry G-string, a demented black merkin, which we glimpse for a second before he ‘transforms’. Lying on “the bottom machine”, a sort of reversed gynecological table, his upright ass becomes the face of the Ass; with feet in the air, two pointy medieval shoes become his ears, the tassel of his hat- a tail, which he manipulates for emphasis. Bottom wheels himself around stage with a pair of hand wheels as articulated donkey legs (like War Horse’s iconic steeds) stride.
Sacrificing Bottom’s nobler moments the extended bawdy joke delivers a series of rude laughs and double entendres that would have been appreciated in Shakespeare’s day.
Titania makes love to his smooth raised cheeks, or lounges sated atop him. “While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,” her pillow talk, gets another huge laugh.
His exit is another showy vault and quick change onstage.
and David Ricardo-Pearce (Duke Theseus and Fairy King Oberon) is a whiz with iambic pentameter.
Actor-puppeteer David Ricardo Pearce plays The Duke and Oberon King of the fairies with perfect iambic pentameter attack. Holding the wooden mask in one hand, he manipulates a giant articulated hand in the other. It can grip things, put them down and point in godlike wrath or anger.
Saskia Portway plays Hippolyta and Titania with a dignity that shows up the foolishness of the men around her, eventually taming her Duke without him noticing.
When Titania summons her fairies they are nightmare figures: Moth is knock-about Fionn Gill flapping two flyswatters crossed over his chest. Peaseblossom has articulated bat wings, the skeletal thorax of a bird and a pliers for his beak. Mustardseed, a frightful clown with articulated boxing gloves whose garish face and gaping mouth resembles the sort of Carnival art that frightened Kohler as a child. (Rows of clowns were used as a ball toss game in old school Carnivals.)
Cobweb, a sexy fairy vixen with pouty red lips rushed downstage and transforms into a Japanese demon with fiery tongue and horns, courtesy of ancient bunrako techniques. Every time she pulls that stunt, the audience screams in delight.
South African puppeteer Adrian Kohler and producer Basil Jones (partners in life and work) started Handspring as a children’s theater company before developing the darker shows which won them worldwide acclaim. They relished working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, their first comic production.
They conceived of the proud Amazonian Hippolyta as a Prospero-like shaman/ sculptress, who carves totemic heads as a charm to bless her marriage to the warrior Theseus. The objects strewn around her workroom become the materials of which characters are conjured. The Graeco-Roman heads that hang in her studio become Fairy Royals Titania and Oberon. Ladders and rigging and a curtain/ sail suggest trees or architectural details.
Kohler, creator of the puppets for “War Horse” and this production, is a second-generation puppeteer, following in his mother’s footsteps. Many of his found object puppets are re-purposed carpenter and gardening tools. Others are constructed from carved wood, cane, carbon fiber, aluminum, leather, resin and the occasional polystyrene.
Kohler studied footage of classic Japanese bunrako puppets and reproduced their secret techniques. Traditional puppets used in Japanese supernatural plays can transform, as the Succubus Cobweb does in this play.
Shakespeare wrote for a time in which his audience believed in spirits, the supernatural and the fairie folk; and Handspring revels in producing their thrilling chilling series of Fairies to bedevil the characters and audience alike.
In rehearsal, Basil exhorted his actors turned puppeteers with his mantra used in rehearsal “every object has a right to life.”
Fairies like graceful jellyfish open and close on an umbrella mechanism.
A series of gardening tools: a wicker basket, mallet, trowel and a plank, become with the logic of child play, Puck, the ultimate shape shifter who whooshs in and out of place manipulated by three fiercely concentrated actor-puppeteers.
They reassemble the spirit in different versions, sometimes he is an anthropomorphic figure who walks erect on ill-assorted legs, sometimes a literal Junk Yard dog, crouching and growling seeking approval from master Oberon’s hand. I enjoyed his morphing, but the poetry in the multi-voiced reading of his lines.
In the final scene, Oberon and Titania’s colossal wooden heads, worn above the head of the puppeteers, appear with full-bodied majesty. Cast members hold wooden planks to create Titania’s enormous wings.
David Price’s haunting music includes live choral restatements of Shakespeare’s lines, a beautiful sung lullaby, and all-cast percussive use of wooden planks, abetted by pre-recorded sections. Christopher Shutt’s sound design wraps the production in forest mystery. Things rustle with portent or drop with dew. Phillip Gladwell’s evocative lighting and Vicki Mortimer production design adds to the fun.
When all is restored to normal and all lovers reunited, the depth of the stage is finally exploited. The two masks are now majestic full figured fairies. Actors inside basketed bodies slowly revolve around the stage, cast members hold up planks framing Queen Titania with her fairy wings. The King and Queen of Fairy bless the lovers, then towering over the changeling child that was the source of their fight, walk upstage into the light, each holding a hand of the boy. Puck’s closing speech “If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended” has become a choral song. FASCINATING THEATRE
Reviewed at the Broad Theatre run April 3-19, 2014