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Flash Review 2, 9-7: The Puppets are Back
Magic and Manipulations Drive "Psyche" Myth

By Terry Hollis
Copyright 2000 Terry Hollis

I remember seeing Penn and Teller on one of their "Vegas" television specials performing one incredible illusion after another. The tricks were amazing enough but when they reversed the entire show and explained how each one was executed, the mechanics alone boggled your mind. They were actually very simple, but there were a lot of them. I thought about this as I watched Ralph Lee's Mettawee River Theatre Company in its production of "Psyche" last night at The Kitchen. You could see everything: the levers, the components, the gears...and watching the workings added to the drama of this tale of redeemed young love. It's one thing to see Jupiter dispense his wisdom, but seeing the performers set the huge apparatus commands that much more attention. Watching an actor pushing Emme Shaw (as Venus) around high atop her cart reminds you that even divine grace requires lots of effort to make it go. As one of the opening events of the Henson International Puppet Theater Festival, "Psyche" lets you see the brawn behind the beauty.

The tale of Cupid and Psyche is a great vehicle for the kind of physical theater presented here. Because the story is completely driven by emotion and fate it would be easy to play it as a picture perfect, seamless production. In the story, Venus is driven to jealousy by the pure and beautiful Psyche. It seems her beauty has been called into question by her son Cupid. As fate would have it, Cupid and Psyche fall in love and, of course, start living together. But, under one condition: Psyche must never try to reveal Cupid's identity, she must be content to live with his spirit alone. The action unfolds through long passages of dialogue and great physicalizations of the characters. The actors (with the help of Yoshiko Chuma) have developed their own vocabulary of galumphing steps, waddling, twitches and leaps that not only define their characters but, at times, turn them into life-size puppets. The set is simple: four columns, and steps leading to a raised platform. The puppets range in size from small rod puppets (Venus's two willing subjects) to large manipulations that dominate the stage (an imposing Persephone materializing out of black fabric). Other elements, such as the small hand puppets that represent Cerebus, the guardian at the gates of hell, show us the unexpected shapes that these creations can take. Combined with the sharp, stalking movements of their manipulators, the dogs control the stage and bring up real menace even though the operators are right there.

There seemed to be a little disdain among some audience members because of the "straight" theater passages between the actors. From what I could gather they believed this was more of a play than they anticipated. I, for one, loved the interaction between all of the elements used here. For example, when the King appears to consul Psyche in the form of a long billowing puppet, he is the perfect counterpart to her fragile state. Clea Rivera is almost clueless as Psyche, bending and changing under just about every suggestion she never seems to learn from her mistakes, but when her love for Cupid is confirmed, she is willing to go to the depths of hell for him. As Cupid, Brian Voelcker has the enthusiasm and matinee idol looks to win her trust. LeeAnne Hutchinson and Emme Shaw as Aglaura and Cydippe, Psyche's sisters, throw their whole bodies into their hilarious performances. Shaw, towering over everyone as Venus, relies totally on her upper body to convey her menace.

If you're making plans to check out this production of "Psyche," it's on through September 10th. I wouldn't go expecting to be wowed by a Cirque de Soleil-like production of spectacle and grandeur. Simplicity is the key word. Figure in the mechanics, figure in the drama, figure in the strong performances by the cast and be rewarded with watching magic happen. Even when the explanations are right in front of your face.

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