|Betontanc and Umka.LV in "Show Your Face," part of the Under the Radar festival. Photo copyright Gints Malderis.
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak
NEW YORK -- The best advice I can give you if you have a chance to see "Show Your Face," the Slovenian / Latvian collaboration between Betontanc & Umka.LV which opened last night and closes this night at La MaMa as part of the Public Theater's Under the Radar festival curated by Mark Russell, is to keep your eyes on the puppet and off the program notes. The latter talk grandly about particle physics and Freudian psychology and conclude by promising that "this performance will be the final judgment for us all, because we allowed ourselves to forget." The former is embodied, so to speak, by a faceless toddler-sized snowsuit, brought to life by three puppeteer/actors with such nuance and detail that it seems not only to have a face but a visage capable of displaying the most poignant emotions.
Much of the action of "Show Your Face" takes place around and on top of a rectangular table situated on and stretching the length of the lip of the stage, a level above a three-person musical ensemble of voice, horns, and piano, called Silence and Ugis Vitins, which, for my companion, really helped make the show, particularly with some of its more rhapsodic numbers, which provided a contra-point to the often breakneck onstage antics. The main puppet -- the faceless one -- inhabits for the most part the space of the table, often running, facing forward. What he's running from isn't always clear apart from a generalized worldwide governmental repression which has labeled him a terrorist, but in a New York theatrical landscape dominated these days by theatrical retreads, given the originality of the form of delivery here it almost doesn't matter if the story is all over the map, a panoply of torture, repression, a war against terrorism which terrorizes innocents, inter-species puppet-human sex, and even agitprop that we've all seen over the past 50 years. And even all this you want to tolerate because of the sincerity with which it is delivered -- who'd have thought that a puppet would deliver one of the most earnest performances seen in years?
What makes the puppet -- we're still talking about a faceless snowsuit here -- believable is not just its voicing by the puppeteer, but that its physicalization by three of them stretches beyond two-dimensional slapstick. This puppet isn't just running scared, it's feeling its efforts. The puppeteers don't just stop at churning its legs; when it stops to take a breather, they gently but clearly press its hand to its expiring, panting lungs. When a lover (played by a real human) seems about to depart, it reaches out to her and draws her back with a restrained touch. When it flies up to kiss her on the lips, it seems natural, and when she then pulls it down on top of her, it seems normal. Indeed, the real accomplishment is it isn't long before, I swear, there seems to be a face peering out timidly from that empty hood. Anyone can design a puppet; few can turn an inanimate object into a living human being.
Even the agitprop has the saving grace that the company doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. So a sort of fortune-teller puppet -- again creatively depicted by a simple shawl and sunglasses -- who hides the hero from pursuing government security soldiers doesn't just announce to them that her name is Rosa Luxemburg, but Rosa Luxemburg Monroe, as in Marilyn. And the two soldiers themselves keep the puppet aesthetic in their portrayal, even though they are human, leap-frogging over each other as they interrogate her.
Now, if we were in 2000, I'd say that the material about torture, repression, and witch-hunts -- about the only clear reason for the puppet's flight is that he's been labeled the world's number one terrorist -- is old hat. But in 2011 of course, when he's forced to sign a confession (in triplicate) after being tortured, the scenario isn't just a time-capsule of the Soviet era and how it must have been in Slovenia and Latvia, but an all-too-accurate condemnation of a new American century marked by Yankee-lead disdain for lawful judicial procedure. And if your name is Julian Assange, that an innocent could be made over overnight into a a terrorist is anything but ancient history.
Speaking of mavericks: I've nitpicked the libretto here, but in the big picture of New York theater-going and curating, what's heartening is the clear vision of Mark Russell, who after -- what, 40 years? -- continues to promote artists who may not be perfect, who are in effect raw, but in some way advance the form. (I'd rather risk a failure programmed by Russell than a middling effort chosen by just about any other curator in town.) I recently had the opportunity to question a long-time observer of the dance scene here and ask him if it was just me, or if it seemed singularly unadventurous. My colleague explained that it wasn't just me, and that presenters -- in New York City! -- are reluctant to take chances, going for the sure thing. So at the Joyce Theater for instance -- which, astoundingly, has been awarded the premiere seat at the planned lower Manhattan arts complex -- we once again see Ballet Hispanico, Parsons Dance, Garth Fagan... are you asleep yet? All these companies, particularly Parsons, may have their place in dance, but they are no longer innovators. Year after year they trot out what is safe. Contrast this to Russell who, where other presenters may have seen just tired agitprop in "Show Your Face," saw the puppet, the body without a face and a crystal-clear vision.