Twelfth Night (or What You Will)
nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
November 13, 2009
Size does matter!
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is currently being presented by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater as part of La MaMa's Puppet Series. The cast consists of 16 eight-inch toy marionettes controlled by three live performers, but with the help of the talented artists, the entire cast seems "alive."
Twelfth Night is the well known comedy by the Bard, where a set of twins (Sebastian and Viola) get separated by a storm and go through a series of adventures involving cross-dressing, suppressed passion, revenge, and mistaken identity, before reuniting. It is a well-constructed story with many colorful characters, and is one of Shakespeare's most well-known scripts. The piece was adapted and directed by Vit Horejs, who has made some judicious cuts and brought the play to 90 minutes with no intermission.
For this production, Emily Wilson has designed a clever three-piece set that consists of a small round table and two tea carts. There is also a long table upstage out of the light, for storing props not being used at the moment. Each table top designates a different area such as the Countess Olivia's garden or the Count Orsino's court, with glassware and cooking utensils cleverly used as set pieces throughout. The top of one cart has been turned into a small sandbox with a castle wall looming over it, and various shells, including a huge plastic lobster claw, strewn about. The artists stand mostly behind these table areas and manipulate the marionettes from above, while giving voice to their actions.
The costumes for the live performers (by Wilson and Michelle Beshaw) resemble dark Slavic peasant wear, with scarves covering the two women's heads, while the puppets' (designed by Milos Kasal) clothing seems to run the gamut from the 1700 – 1800s. The lighting by Federico Restrepo creates a nice focus on different parts of the stage as needed, and is suited creatively with the action.
Horejs' direction keeps a brisk pace, and all movements are choreographed to move smoothly from table to table and scene to scene. The artists do a wonderful job of changing vocals for each character. The ladies, Deborah and Michelle Beshaw, are particularly delightful in their vocal variations, while Horejs, with his strongly accented English, seems to struggle a bit with his line deliveries. They all do masterful manipulation with what limited movement the marionettes have.
About those marionettes: at a mere eight inches, they do have amazing detail, but they are SMALL. It is a tribute to the way that they are handled by the artists that we get as much as we do. I was seated in the front row, yet can't imagine what the experience is like further back in the theater. It seems like this is the kind of piece where you would want the audience close up in a circle tight around. Especially since the humans are in full sight anyway. However, seated as close as I was, it was generally pretty engrossing.
It reminded me a lot of getting together with childhood friends as a kid and making use of whatever was about to stand in as houses or terrain for whatever puppets, dolls, or figurines were pursuing adventures for that particular play date. And parts of it contained that kind of childlike joy, in a deceptively difficult art form.