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Flash Review 1, 10-7: Happy Together
Neumann's not just Trompetter's Puppet for Wilde tale

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2004 Maura Nguyen Donohue

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NEW YORK -- On a recent weekend, "The Happy Prince," a collaboration between puppeteer Amy Trompetter and choreographer David Neumann, premiered at The Kitchen. The lure of fanciful and colorful puppets had the space bursting with families for the Saturday matinee I attended. But though the work involves a veritable army of papier-mache players in this telling of the Oscar Wilde story this was no kiddie show. This was a moving, achingly beautiful work of theater with a resounding moral of compassion and integrity.

In "The Happy Prince" a swallow falls in love with a statue of a city's late beloved ruler. The happy prince who was blissfully ignorant in life can now see the great suffering of the poor in his city in death. He entreats the sparrow, who is on his way to Egypt, to remove his jeweled eyes and gold gilding to aid the less fortunate and thus begins a process of selfless destruction for them both.

Before the fantastic parade of puppets, appearing in a great range of sizes, begins we see the always exquisite Karen Kandel as she enters and crosses diagonally. She recites text from Wilde's tombstone, speaking of destructive love before she narrates the tragic fairy-tale, occasionally rising from her seat to play a version of the statue. The work uses both puppets and live performers to create a rich playground of scale. The audience is often given differing views of the same scene, as when Kandel, as the prince, stands above tiny homes and drops a small silvery tear onto a tiny green sparrow while upstage the same scene plays out in a kind of extreme close up, with Chinese opera performer Guo Yi portraying the sparrow sitting at the base of two enormous golden legs and getting pelted by an enormous tear-shaped balloon.

Trompetter's puppets range from little stick characters such as the small sparrow used in the previously mentioned scene to large three-foot tall heads. She most often represents the downtrodden citizens with faceless reliefs of bent bodies that appear to be in a state of constant sorrow, while the callous rich are played by a small gown and suit. The sparrow's tales of Egypt are set between bright and warm sheets painted with hieroglyphs and populated by two-dimensional stick puppets. Manuel Lutenghorst moves us from the shadows of misery and despair into the fantastical daydreams of a far-away exotic land with quick, easy lighting shifts.

All of the elements mix to create a tightly-crafted work. There is no lost movement in the show; everything is deftly shaped and timed. Neumann's hand is very prevalent but highly subtle compared to the kind of light, bantering feel of much of his other work. Aside from a few brief bursts of Chinese opera movement from Yi the dance is not immediately obvious. However, eventually one realizes that the entire work has been highly choreographed, from the meditative reach of a hand to the fluttering movement of a cloth to the barbaric pounces of a mob of hand puppets.

Performers Trudi Cohen, Christopher Green, Sophia Holman, Ricardo Muniz and Jessica Valadez bring all manner of puppets to life through an extensive series of movement tasks and puppeteering styles.

Daniel Barnidge's compositions on piano create an air of odd otherworld-ness that perfectly suits the taut, painful undercurrent of this profound tale.

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