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Dead Puppet Talk

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

I have always found puppets to be a little creepy. Not in any macabre sense of the word, but in the eerie fashion by which these inanimate figures are brought to life and often made to mirror the behavior of their human masters. In such a state, it would seem that puppets can "live" or at least give the impression of life, but can puppets die? Is a dead puppet a redundant expression or might the notion of a dead puppet provide deeper insight into the lives of humans beings themselves?

Such is one of the many questions raised by the beautiful, complex, and fascinating world premiere of Dead Puppet Talk, a new work of puppet theater by the internationally renowned puppet creator Roman Paska. Don't be expecting a traditional narrative from Paska's work, though; the absence of a narrative is, in many ways, the point of the piece itself. Instead, Dead Puppet Talk challenges standard notions of what puppets represent and signify while presenting us with a lyrical, if fractured lens through which to view our world.

Paska's work (which includes creative collaboration with Donna Zakowska) is comprised of two interwoven parts that comment on each other in subtle, yet telling ways. On one hand, we have video footage of the Puppet Talker (played by the always engaging comedian/thespian Bill Irwin) who delivers a quirky academic discourse on the nature of puppets, full of jargon that would impress any professor of cultural studies. The Puppet Talker's ruminates on philosophical questions such as "What is a puppet?" and "What is the relationship between puppets and reality?" The contrived seriousness that Irwin as the Puppet Talker brings to these questions is quite funny and amusing. Yet, his monologue, which is broken into discrete sections throughout the evening, is not just tongue-in-cheek, but also provides some thought-provoking insights into the relationship between humans and puppets.

Interspersed with these mini-treatises on puppetry are of course the puppets themselves, deftly handled by puppet walkers Uta Gebert, Gabriel Hermand-Priquet, and Philippe Rodriguez-Jorda. Dressed in androgynous black and white clothing that refrains from evoking a particular time or place, the puppet walkers enact a variety of scenes with Paska's beautiful human-like puppets, which are also dressed in similarly androgynous clothing. More significantly, the puppets are often seen wearing white bags over their heads, like the coverings used during the executions of criminals. By employing this particular image of death, Paska seems to suggest that if puppets can be brought to "life," then they can be "dead" as well, like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just waiting for their next entrance.

Over the course of the play's hour and ten minutes, the puppets engage in a variety of activities from shooting each other to showing love and affection to searching for apples that are hidden on the set made up of green grass tables. The puppets' actions and emotions (love, death, humor) are familiar and strange, recognizable and inscrutable all at the same time. With scenes of puppet violence and puppets chasing after apples, the work evokes biblical, mythic, and folkloric motifs, while simultaneously undercutting the coherency of such elemental and basic narratives through their oblique and at times purposely irrational presentation.

Why do the puppets behave in such ways? Normally, we would expect a narrative or story of some sort, but Paska has something much more profound up his sleeve. As the Puppet Talker suggests, why should we expect that puppets imitate or mimic reality or humans? Might there be a state of consciousness that precedes human logic and narrative, a state of consciousness that in some ways is more real than reality as we know it? Asking these questions, Paska turns the entire relationship between puppets and humans on its head. Instead of puppets transparently representing the logical actions of human beings, the non-narrative and non-logical actions of the puppets (known as Puppet Thinking according to the Puppet Talker) question just how real and logical our own human lives and actions are.

Given that we live in a world full of uncertainty and death, Paska is surely on to something. Have we imposed an artificial sense of order and reason onto activities that actually lack cause and effect? Paska's puppets seem to kill each other for no apparent reason and effectively death becomes just an event like any other activity. As the puppet walkers move rhythmically to a soundtrack (mixed live perfectly by Paul Prestipino) composed of both original music by Richard Termini and pre-recorded authentic blues and bluegrass songs, it soon becomes evident that the Puppet Walkers, who we are ostensibly to interpret as the humans, are as much "puppets" as the figures they manipulate. Paska drives this connection home in the play's stunning final image in which the puppet walkers don the same white death bags that the puppets have worn over the course of the show.

Paska's Dead Puppet Talk is a work that is not only engaging and beautiful to witness, but which also provides audiences with an entirely new way to think about what it means to be alive. Given the insights of Paska's piece, perhaps we all should become Puppet Thinkers and learn to see the world through illogical and non-narrative eyes.

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Dead Puppet Talk
Through September 18
The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212-255-5793 x11