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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 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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