Czech Devils for Children
A little devil and the problem of drinking too much Czech beer at a children’s theatre festival in Prague.
So my French marionnettiste friend Paulette Caron dropped into Prague for a couple of days on her way to play at Greek puppet festival. And Nina Malíková gave us free entrance to a theatre/puppet festival for children at Divadlo V Celetné (The Celetné Theatre). We braved the swarm of students of various ages to see a play called ‘Kapela jede! aneb Není pecka jako pecka’ (The band rocks! There is or isn’t a pit.) We were give a couple of the last seats in the crowded house. The lights were lowered and the raucous students came to a point of stillness. And then the play began.
- Actually this the end of the play when our friend looks at the beer and says ‘Enough is enough, time to get back to life.’ or at least that’s how I interpreted it. The kids understood…
Now imagine children’s theatre? Really what do you expect of the stage and the puppets? Do you see bright little muppety glove puppets singing songs? Do you see cute faces and happy performers? Well what about this? The scene opens on a bar. Oh oh! We are already a thousand miles from any performance for a mixed group of children, anything you could imagine in “age appropriate” America. This wasn’t France either. A man lies with his head resting on a mug of beer. This IS the Czech Republic. A bartender stands in a darkened corner. A cleaning lady walks in. There is some sort of maintenance man as well. They go through the motions of waking up through a precise set of motions all of which results in the man with a new glass of real beer and his head sleepily falls into it again. Lights out. Lights come up again on the same scene and a repetition of the exact same motions, only slightly faster. Lights out and up again on the exact same scene now playing in manic speed. And eventually in all of this the first puppet appears, a small red devil. Evidently this is Czech Hell. And the devil is there to show our beer swilling loser something. Now in the end some much needed Czech moral appears, thankfully not AA, but certainly not pro-drunkenness. Along the way there is a surgical operation deep in black humor of full-sized devils pulling out the man’s diseased liver in a near Grand Guignol performance. Not only was this not a children’s show in America, it was getting a little to sketchy for the American adults. (‘Really! Hmph! I come to the theatre to be entertained!) But the Czech kids ate it up. And considering the drinking and car crash statistics perhaps the devils’ warning was crucial. And it was a great theatre experience.
The Devils operate.
Later I introduced Paulette to Nina Malíková, former Editor in Chief at Loutkář, the oldest puppetry magazine in the world, and they were able to converse more easily in French than English. One of the things we discussed was the fact that puppetry was being swallowed up more and more by a puppetless media theatre, exactly Jurkowski’s fears. And it wasn’t that puppets couldn’t exist in different environments. But I sensed that technology itself was part of the problem. There was just so much of it.
Divadlo S + H in Prague.
That evening we dropped in on the Black Light Theatre’s show called Antologia, which did contain elements of puppetry, but were put on for the tourists. Black theatre is a technique for lighting in such a way that figures dressed completely in black are invisible and able to cause objects to float or spin without any obvious support. It was a collection of mildly comic skits and clever effects. Black theatre had drifted over the years from real absurdity in the best sense to coy inoffensive humor. There was something quite Czech about the whole thing that I wanted Paulette to absorb. In her own words “I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would.”
Spejbl & Hurvinek about to go on a wild ride.
The next day we took the tram out to the Dejvice section of Prague to the Divadlo S + H to encounter Spejbl and Hurvinek the classic puppets originally created by the brilliant Czech puppeteer Josef Skupa. Hurvinek is the rascally son and Spejbl the thick-skulled father. (Spejbl & Hurvinek were actually arrested by the SS in World War 2, along with Skupa himself.) We were there to see a production loosely called How Mr Spejbl dusted ‘Jak pan Spejbl prášil’, which is also a play on words for the Czech version for Baron Munchhausen. And it was a crazy trip with Spejbl turning into a Munchhausen-like figure taking Hurvinek and co. from one fantastic scenario to another, including a trip to the moon. It was fascinating to compare the Czech children’s responses to the show and compare them to the children at Guignol shows. The Czech kids will laugh at pure words devoid of slapstick. Yet will often be very quiet until a time for laughter. French kids go nuts during the more frenetic parts of a Guignol show. French children will also talk back to the puppets. One gets the feeling that the French enfants are learning to be critics, while the Czech děti are developing a kind of absurd humor.
The Fish that swallowed the Spejbl & Hurvinek cast of puppets.
The last of the shows I saw with Paulette was an unusual Buchty a Loutky gig entitled Pět ran do čepice (Five rounds into the hat) on the larger stage of the Švandovo Divadlo along with the Czech prog rock band Už Jsme Doma. We stopped up at their crowded studio above the theatre before the show. Paulette by this time was beginning to get a sense of the very different puppet world in the Czech Republic. The Buchtys made us feel at home. The performance was done as a contest to have the audience of children vote for the best creature, mostly puppets, to join the arguing creatures, who were also the band Už Jsme Doma, to settle a bet. Or at least that’s something of what I was told. Again another example of absurd Czech humor for the kids. After Buchty a Loutky’s Marek Bečka tallied the votes at the end Vit, also from the Buchtys, came out in his polar bear costume and stole the election. A few of the Už Jsme Doma tunes were left stuck in my head.
Vote for the Moth! Buchty a Loutky with Už Jsme Doma.
In two days we watched four puppet plays. Only in Prague would this be normal. And the least interesting performance cost the most and was done for tourists. Real travelers who want to experience puppets should use a bit of skill in locating real Czech puppetry. But if you do you will be rewarded. My suggestion? Head over to the Švandovo Divadlo (Švandovo Theatre) and see Buchty A Loutky, even if it’s one of their children’s shows… But more about B + L next time.
Vit as Polar Bear wins the vote!