Having My Cake and Puppets Too!
I arrived on a Wednesday morning at Celetná 17, an address conveniently close to the Old Town Square in Prague. I was hunting down Loutkář Magazine in a building I had remembered from my 2005 journey. And I was here to see the same person I had seen then, though at that point as a complete stranger. But Nina Malíková made it immediately clear that I was no stranger this time around. After all, she said, how could I forget the only visitor to Loutkář from Alaska.
Nina generously gave me about two hours of her time for my interview. She discussed many things in the filmed discussion including the fascinating relationship between Josef Skupa and Jiří Trnka, two famed Czech puppeteers and in Trnka’s case, a puppet filmmaker, which we both agreed was movie material. Nina’s father, Jan Malik, was a central figure in Czech puppetry himself, and as a child she could remember people, like the seminal Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov, in her house. Finally we ended up in a local café where we sipped on beers and spoke of more personal things. All in all an excellent reunion, with promises to meet again next time I’m in Prague.
As I finished up that interview it was time to hop a tram and head over to the Švandovo Divadlo (theatre). I was now coming to meet the members of Buchty a Loutky (Cakes and Puppets) and to watch the first of four separate shows down in the Švandovo’s brick basement. I mentioned Marek Bečka’s name to the rather prim and dusty woman at the window of the employee’s entrance. Marek had graciously allowed me to come see the shows for free, saving me some precious coin, which certainly got sucked up by other incidental expenses.
I had briefly encountered Marek before but never really met. The only member whom I had spoken to in 2005 was Tomáš Procházka and he certainly remembered me. Naturally I stood back and let them set up for the evening’s show, Artuš neboli Artuš ( which translates into Arthur or Arthur…) a parody on the King Arthur saga complete with Knights of the Round Table, a Guinevere who reads a kind of fairy tale which comes alive as she reads it, tributes to Monty Python and a Holy Grail that occasionally comes into view before resolving the whole story with a hint of a spiritual conclusion. This was to be their last performance of this particular piece and the small place was stuffed full with appreciative Czechs.
I was invited to drop in the next day to talk with Tomáš and possibly Marek. I arrived at 15:00, again being let in by the rather cautious woman at the gate. I climbed up to the third floor to the rather jumbled and chaotic studios of Buchty a Loutky. The walls were filled with strange marionette figures from the last 20 years of performances. (Though they do occasionally auction off certain pieces from shows that have finished there run as they did with Artuš neboli Artuš the night before.) I was immediately confronted by a rather evil looking old woman from a future production of their version of Hansel and Gretel. I was also accosted by found folk carved versions of Spejbl and Hurvinek, gold spray painted Barbies, bug eyed homunculi, slit faced creatures, and scores of skeletal puppets in a variety of styles and shapes.
I spent a while filming an interview with Tomáš Procházka discussing puppetry and the 21st Century followed by a shorter interview with Marek, who is often in the middle of three things at once, discussing the purpose and style of Buchty a Loutky. I was glad to have both of them on record. Meanwhile Marek had to get downstairs to start setting up for the evening’s truly bizarre flight into imagination entitled Psycho Reloaded, which indeed was a cracked version of the film Psycho complete with live string players in granny dresses, an extremely sinister looking Norman Bates and a ‘Mother’ who was an actual dead stuffed weasel! And the whole point of the performance… nothing actually happens. You’d have to be there.
The Buchtys have done several film adaptations over the years including their perennial Rocky IX, Jaws and coming up, something I can’t even begin to imagine, a piece simply called Lynch… obviously a tribute (?) to American director David Lynch. Well if any puppet troupe can pull that off this is the one.
One of the spearheads behind the film adaptations is Radek Beran, whom I had more of a chance to get to know this time around. He added a sardonically funny narrator as a ventriloquist puppet who would pop into the scene every now and then and conclude all of his little speeches with a suspicious ‘Heh!’ before diving back into the scenery.
The next night, barely squeaking by the stuffy woman this time who didn’t give me even a hint of recognition, I was present for a very different sort of show, another adaptation, but this time from a book by Martin Ryšavý supposedly called Journey to Siberia based on a journey in the early 90’s into a bizarre Siberian landscape of shamans and vodka hallucinations. Again more Buchty imagination gone wild with lab animals portrayed by plush critters and reindeer that glowed bloody under a black light.
My final journey into the zone of Cakes and Puppets, after finding a new password for the lady who guards the door while raising a smile from her, was actually a children’s show the next day, Saturday, Žabák Valentýn (or the Frog Valentine) a simple tale of the animosity between storks and frogs being overcome when Valentine, our accidentally heroic frog, adopts a baby stork, who then grows up to be his protector not his predator. This was the Buchtys in a different sort of zone, not playing with the sometimes edgy imagery they can pull out of their hat, but rather just playing for the other kids. Vítek Brukner and his wife Zuzana Bruknerová along with Radek were particularly good at this. In fact there is an element of just playing with toys to all of Buchty a Loutky’s performances.
And there is also the fact that what they do is almost pure imagination without much money for production. They reuse sets, rehabilitate puppets, come up with truly memorable effects (a tiny Excalibur sticking out a loaf of bread, pulling the frog mobile around the stage with a circle of string, playing a frog soccer match with little wooden carved frogs on pegs, or later a frog dance on an old record turntable) all for next to nothing. Basically they just make their plays out of junk, and in doing so reconfigure the notion of the grammar of puppetry. It was that aspect that I originally saw back in 2005, which inspired me to give puppetry a try back in Alaska… And it worked!
And I told them all that in a number of ways. The time I spent watching them this time around will certainly be one of the highlights of this odyssey. I had a good talk with Zuzana and more good conversation with Radek. I had already said my farewells to Tomáš and Marek. And I realized that I’ll miss these skilled and zany puppet people. And will look forward to meeting them again someday.
And so this trip to Prague was winding down. But one big thing was missing. Radek, Marek and Tomáš had mentioned their indebtedness to Jan Švankmajer. And for me a crucial part of this undertaking was to interview Švankmajer. It was now Saturday afternoon. I was leaving Monday morning. My friend Silvie was frantically trying to figure out whether it was going to happen or not.
(To be continued)
Prague, Czech Republic