Monday, March 08, 2010

On-Stage: Revolution!?

What’s a revolution without puppets? While many revolutions have had metaphorical puppets, the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) represents the great revolutions of history, culminating in the 1989 Velvet Revolution, with its cast of wooden marionettes, as well as the puppet-like puppeteers themselves in Revolution!?, an avant-garde Commedia dell’Arte which officially opened at the Theater for the New City, in conjunction with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s multi-disciplinary Performing Revolution festival.

Consisting of a series of vignettes, Revolution!? has a decidedly absurdist (occasionally even abstract) bent, reflecting the influence experimental Eastern European theater groups, like perhaps the Polish Theatre of the Eighth Day. Though founded by troupe member Vít Horejš following the discovery of several traditional Czech puppets in the Jan Hus Church on the Eastside of Manhattan, the puppets employed in Revolution!? are entirely featureless (so do not look for a Havel marionette).

Perhaps the most intriguing revolution is that of Prometheus, in which music, a fairly jazzy tenor saxophone in fact, takes the place of fire. It is all the more impressive since it takes place on stilts (like much of the show). After Spartacus and the Hussite Czech peasant revolutions, the CAMT reaches our revolution.

The “Boston Tea Party” scene actually takes on additional meanings today with the advent of the new Tea Party Movement. While their mash-up of Washington crossing the Delaware with the lyrics of Broadway conveys something uniquely American, it ranges well into parody. (Though it is surely unintentional, at the risk of sounding “jingoistic,” one would also prefer to see this scene done without the American flag being stepped on.)

“Bolsheviks” is easily the funniest scene, in which a harried school teacher attempts to teach the 1917 Revolution to a distracted and distracting student. Unlike the American sequence though, the humor is not derived from the revolution itself, but from the comedic circumstances of the school setting. On the other hand, the strongest and darkest images are created during “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,” as the marionette corpses start to pile up during the reign of terror.

There are some striking visuals in Revolution!? and its cast of puppeteers are enormously talented physically. Nearly every troupe member spends considerable time on stilts as well as manipulating the marionettes. Hana Kalouskova also exhibits remarkable flexibility in “Prometheus” and Adela Jrackova demonstrates her considerable juggling skills in several scenes. However, a consistent through-line linking the episodes, beyond the revolutionary theme, would have helped maintain a more consistent tone throughout the show.

Revolution!? is a well produced display of puppetry in an adventurous theatrical setting, but it is probably not the show to go to for insight into the Velvet Revolution (or any of the prior revolutions for that matter). While younger audiences may well appreciate its physicality and marionettes, it really is devised with adults in mind. An interesting but not imperative theater experience, Revolution!? runs through March 21st at the Theater of the New City.

(Photo by Zita Bradley)