At this point, who isn’t sick of puppets? They’ve been used grandly (Julie Taymor’s The Lion King), full-frontally (Avenue Q), and ingeniously (everything Basil Twist touches). Yet what was once a charming novelty begins to seem a precious commonplace. How many different ways are there to call a thing of wood and wires “astonishingly lifelike”?
Tall Horse, the African import that led off this season’s Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is hardly the most accomplished in this line. The show describes the odyssey, based on fact, of a giraffe sent by the Egyptian pasha to the king of France in 1827. It’s a terrific subject, with its lively characters, exotic settings, and subtext of horrible racism, but the presentation, by South Africa’s Handspring and Mali’s Sogolon companies, left something to be desired. Some dialogue was incomprehensible, the pace was sluggish, and, most troublesome, the puppeteering itself was uneven. How is it, then, that in the face of these limitations, and despite our years of seeing these tricks performed more deftly, the puppets still work?
In every good puppet show, the moment has to arrive, and in great shows, it arrives without your realizing it: Your imagination takes over for your senses, and you start assigning to wooden fabrications a personality and a soul. Midway through Tall Horse, some Europeans crowd together for their first glimpse of the mysterious giraffe. The audience has seen the creature by this point, but as it comes lumbering out of the darkness, the fear and majesty are still palpable—never mind the puppeteers plainly visible on stilts, surrounded by fancy harnesses. Later, Atir, the giraffe’s African handler, meets a woman named Clothilde for an assignation. As he slides in for a kiss, you feel the frisson of scandal, one that has everything to do with Clothilde being a privileged white woman, and nothing with her being built and manipulated by a team of craftsmen.
No matter how overwhelming the temptation, puppets shouldn’t be taken for granted. They underscore something obvious yet poorly understood—that playgoing is an essentially imaginative act, more like reading a novel than seeing a film. Year after year, the great achievement of BAM is to bring us this sort of underrepresented stimulation. This season, one highlight is likely to be Bright Abyss, a nouveau cirque show by James Thiérrée, a writer-director-performer with talent to match his pedigree (he’s the grandson of Charlie Chaplin). Even more exciting is the return of Edward Hall and his Propeller troupe, which will stage A Winter’s Tale in November. Two years ago, BAM presented their A Midsummer Night’s Dream: With a simple set and basic costumes, and making no effort to disguise that all the performers were male, they did an uproarious, heartbreaking job of unlocking the play’s weird magic. But this is no surprise. Shakespeare understood better than anyone that the unreality of a scene can make it all the more real in our minds. I don’t mind having my imagination fired by puppets now and then, but it’s worth considering that he managed okay without them.