October 2007

Famous Puppet Death Scenes
presented by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop
October 23 – 27, 2007 The Young Centre for the Performing Arts Toronto
The Ups and Downs of Puppet Death
by Tova G. Kardonne
The puppet always dies. Sometimes, it even stays dead. This is no spoiler column, it’s all there in the title. Famous Puppet Death Scenes killed me along with its cornucopia of puppet personalities.

I got a chance to talk to Peter Balkwill, one of the performers, writers and founders of The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. “[A puppet death scene] is the opposite of a death scene in a play with live actors,” he explained, “The actor ‘dies’ but we know he’s alive and pretending to be dead; the puppet is a dead thing pretending to be alive, so for its death scene, it just stops pretending.” And we all laugh? “It’s the same reaction that you see when people watch Bugs Bunny or Itchy and Scratchy.” But those shows are for kids, while this one is not.

Or is it?

“The idea for this show developed while we were working on a version of Pinocchio,” Peter recalled, “In the original book, Pinocchio kills the cricket on page six. Since that show was for a younger audience, we were advised to leave out the killing of the cricket, like in the Disney version, but we decided that no, we really wanted it to stay. Anyway, it ended up being one of the best moments of the show, with the strongest reaction, right across the board, from adults as well as kids. Although,” he mused, “the adult audiences reacted differently when there weren’t many kids there, they were less restrained, almost as though they were intimidated by the kids.” Inspired by the potency of that moment, the group played with various ways of building a show around its essential energy, and the final result was a series of puppet death scenes. Springing from such a child-approved source, it’s clearly not the death that makes this an adult show. “Our shows for younger audiences don’t talk down to kids. We strive to create situations that kids and adults can understand together. The best reactions come when adults are responding from a child-like state, and when kids can respond from an adult-like understanding of what’s going on. If this show isn’t for children, it’s not because we don’t think children can handle it (though the under-six age group would be terrified by some of it). It’s because puppetry [in North America] is just emerging from a kids-only pigeonhole, and we’d like it to be understood that our work is for a sophisticated audience.”

That, it certainly is. The range of techniques and types of puppetry in Death Scenes reveals not only the depth and diversity of disciplines in which the group members are conversant, but also the discipline with which the technical aspects of the show are tailored to the content. No flashy effects-for-effects’-sake here, and not for lack of available flash. A futuristic death scene, in which a frozen human from a Star Trek-like era awakens to meet the electronic spacesuit-dwelling new human race, is rife with talking lights and engineered soundscapes. Another scene is entirely contained in an old trunk, wheeled onstage by two dark-suited and bearded performers, who ceremoniously open the trunk to reveal an expressively crafted Pope and monkey in a boat on a moving and rolling sea. One of the simplest and most tragic segments employed only one moving part: the slowly opening and closing eyelid of a whale’s eye. The piece was entitled, “The Last Whale,” and depicted no more than the final looks of pain, alarm, horror, resignation, and finally, peace, in the giant eye that emerged from behind the curtain of the central stage. While their ingenuity in constructing puppets whose parts could each float away mid-gesture was manifest, the Old Trout don’t eschew simplicity when it’s called for, as in the recurring segment where an ugly little bald man haplessly avoids being squashed by a giant fist.

“Everyone is innately a puppeteer,” Peter asserts, “Everyone has those tendencies…. Talent is just a desire to express.” Maybe so, but there was still a lot of it behind this visually stunning, emotionally varied, and deftly executed production.

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We welcome your comments and feedback
Tova G. Kardonne
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