Photo: H. Kawahara/Bunraku Kyokai 2007
I go forever without seeing any type of performance that involves puppets, so you can imagine my surprise when not one but two predominantly puppet oriented events showed up in this week’s calendar. The first was one of only a handful of US performances of Bunraku from The National Puppet Theater of Japan and the other was The Fortune Teller,
a recent work from the mind of Erik Sanko. Despite centuries separating the two and radically different aesthetic values, it's surprising how much the two events had in common. Despite all of the wonder and gargantuan magic that Julie Taymor has wrought, puppets still tend to be smaller than life and both shows struggled with ways to make the often beautiful and fine detail of their work visible to an audience from the stage.
Bunraku, the centuries old traditional Japanese puppet theater, returned to Los Angeles for the first time in two decades and played to sold out audiences here and across the other four cities on the tour. The performance included not only scenes from two different standard works, but a substantial didactic component where the many artists involved in the performance explained their craft through a translator. Of course Bunraku is technically musical theater so there are both musicians playing the shamisen, a stringed guitar-like instrument which is repeatedly tuned and retuned during the performance, and "chanters" who provide narration and dialog for the puppets in a quasi-sung, quasi-spoken fashion. If anyone needs evidence of the power to portray emotion with the voice in the absence of superior singing talent, here it is. These chanters make the fetishization of vocal performance seem as ridiculous as it truly is. The pieces were both meditative and clearly related to Kabuki in the use of stylized movements. Of course from the back of the house where I sat, much of the detailed facial movements and motions of the puppets were lost. Still, there was plenty to admire especially in a scene from "Oshichi's Burning Love" where a young maiden perilously climbs an icy fire watch tower ladder with seemingly no support during an evening snow storm.
The gluttonous cook
Photo: Oliver Dalzell
Meanwhile at UCLA, Erik Sanko and colleagues reprised their 2006 New York performances of The Fortune Teller
. The strategy for dealing with size here involved creating a mini-stage that a small audience clustered around, not unlike a Punch and Judy show. Which was a good thing because it too was packed with elaborate detail essential to its aesthetic. The work itself was an overly structured morality tale springing out of the Edward Gorey/Tim Burton/Quay Brothers tradition. A wealthy dead man, a mysterious fortune teller, and seven morally flawed guests (get it?) combine to form one of those spooky but whimsical tales for adults. While visually intriguing, however, too much of the piece relies on formula over narrative. There is music here as well from (you guessed it) Danny Elfman, although in this instance it is prerecorded and not as integrally related to the drama. To make matters worse, the few times the performance strays from the framework, things rapidly fall apart such as in a strange coda where Sanko comes out on stage disguised as the devil and tells a few bad jokes in what apparently is an attempt to find some way to get him out from behind the curtain without completely destroying the mood of the piece at its conclusion. The puppetry here, although stylized, is far less technically detailed and routinized, leaving the power of the story more vested in its creepy images than the actual physical performance of any of the puppeteers or puppets. Luckily at only an hour, The Fortune Teller
doesn't overburden its flaws more than is necessary. It runs at UCLA's Freud Playhouse through Sunday October 28th and there are still a few tickets left.
Labels: LA Theater Reviews