The Historye of Queen Esther...
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
February 21, 2009
One of the great perks of Judaism—for kids anyway—is getting to celebrate Purim, by far the most whimsical holiday on the Hebrew calendar. Filled with costumes, noisemakers, and sweets, it's enough fun to make up for a year's worth of Christmas envy. Purim has its roots, however, in a surprisingly weighty story about overcoming anti-Semitic oppression. It's a story every child, Jewish or not, ought to know, and is receiving a colorful (if rather uneven) treatment by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side Y.
Ancient Persia is under the rule of King Ahasverus, a well-intentioned but spoiled nincompoop who leaves most of the big decisions to his evil prime minister Haman. When a Jewish man named Modechai refuses to bow to Haman, the prime minister swears revenge...against all the Jews in Persia. But soon Modechai's beautiful cousin Esther catches the eye of the King, who takes her as one of his many wives. Modechai warns Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity, but when she gets wind of Haman's plot to hang every Jew in Persia, she realizes she must risk her own life to save her people.
The great strength of this production is clearly in Jakub Krejci's imaginative puppet design. The main characters look as though they've been playfully cobbled together from a folk art junkyard, with body parts made out of instruments and gardening tools, and delightfully exaggerated features. The background scenery is even comprised of gigantic puppets, beautiful 10-foot monstrosities that glow like stained glass characters come to life, occasionally slowly changing position to reflect the onstage action. Equally compelling as the sights are the sounds, with a rousing score played live by composer/guitarist Clifton Hyde's top-notch klezmer trio. They support and drive the action in ways that are always exciting and never obtrusive.
As wonderful as the sensory experience can be, the production often falters in its inconsistent storytelling. The script, while it takes a childlike tone, uses so many big words that even children who know this story may be thoroughly confused (it also seems preoccupied with keeping the adults entertained with modern references to things like Page 6, health benefits, and Pilsner Urquell). The staging does little to clarify things either, especially with the disconcerting amount of emphasis placed on the puppeteers (as opposed to the actual puppets). The cast members frequently change costumes, talk without moving their puppet's mouth or body, and sometimes abandon their puppets altogether to interact with each other as actors. I felt bad for the puppets after a while, as they felt more and more like incidental props, rather than the heroes of the story.
I know, I know, this is children's theatre. And on a basic level if the kids stop squirming—and to be fair the children at my performance did seem fully engaged—then it's a success. I also feel this company must certainly know that it can do better. I can't say enough good things about the visuals, but director Vit Horejs's seeming mistrust of the puppets to expressively tell the story left me incredibly frustrated. If you are already familiar with the Purim story, this production will probably still conjure your inner child. But I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to the story, nor as a prime example of what great puppet theatre can do.