A Journey Into European Puppetry

Shakespeare

A Theatrical Day on Rustaveli Avenue

Rustaveli Horse

An old prop from the Rustaveli Theatre

I stopped in to visit my friends at the hand shadow puppet troupe Budrugana Gagra, of whom I have written about in the past and will do so again before I leave Tbilisi. It was a day when various things had conspired to make life somewhat quiet for them. But I had been told by Elene Murjikneli that I could have a tour of the building that they were in and that was the prestigious Rustaveli National Theatre. So she took me over to the elevator from the basement in a newer connecting building and we began our tour. I had already had a glimpse of the theatre when I went to watch Budrugana Gagra perform in what was called the ‘small room’. The ‘small room’ was an ornate space holding over 280 people and was larger than the Chilkat Center for the Arts back in my hometown of Haines, Alaska. But compared to the main auditorium of the Rustaveli Theatre which held 800, it was, I suppose, small.

The Rustaveli Theatre was original built in 1887. With a couple of additions since then. Besides the main hall and the small stage there was also a black box stage as well as an experimental theatre. And the place is labyrinthine and elaborately decorated. Elene first took us up five flights and then we took another elevator to a floor below the roof. We walked through a window and suddenly were standing in a gutter outside overlooking the city. Not the place for folks with vertigo. It was lightly sprinkling and the metal at out feet was wet, yet it was an unforgettable view. Tbilisi spread out beyond us, including modern buildings, older rustic structures, Soviet era apartment blocks, and the current president’s house about a block away. She almost took me all the way to the highest part of the roof but the slipperiness of the sheet metal made that a dodgy proposition. We did climb into another strange rooftop room with a curious round hole in it before descending into more chambers.

We stepped onto the stage of the theatre which was set up for performances, and then I had a chance to see the main hall. Wandering around any theatre is always a treat, because the mind begins to wander dreaming up possibilities for events to be staged. We walked through another oversized hall that was grace with theatrical props and memorabilia. Before long we came to the front of the building, where the Rustaveli Avenue traffic could be seen through thick doors of wood and glass. We then descended…

Underneath the front entrance there had once been a cafe sponsored by the Artists’ Society that had founded the theatre. It had been a serious artistic and literary hangout in the early 20th Century up until the period of Georgian Independence ended in 1921 (See Georgian Lessons #7). Artist like Lado Gudiashvili and Davit Kakabadze had painted the walls. The Soviets in their passion to cleanse any trace of the bourgeoisie had painted over their frescoes. Yet traces of that older heritage could be discovered. Elene took be through a dark passage. She told me to look at the walls. Suddenly I saw the walls were covered by a painting from door to door from ceiling to floor. I took a few flash photos to capture the experience.

We then walked into a darkened area that was filled with passages and and heavy stone pillars. And Elene said that there were even more chambers below that were locked away from us. She said there was one theatre worker who knew all of the hidden secrets of the Rustaveli. And I was thoroughly captivated by the subterranean dark. But eventually it was time to thank Elene and to move on back out to Rustaveli Avenue.

As I was walking down the street I stopped at a sign in Georgian script. My comprehension of the Georgian alphabet now is now nearly complete. I read the word slowly to myself… ე რ ი ს ი ო ნ ი. Erisioni! I had found the home of the musical singing and dance troupe Erisioni. I had originally seen their DVD, Georgian Legend, which contained beautiful songs and astounding dances. I had been looking for them. And I knew they were somewhere in the area. I had walked by this old building dozens of times. There was no Latin script. But I had indeed found them. I walked inside of the dimly lit austere building. If the guys at the door were guards of some sort they didn’t seem to notice me. But then again I learned a while ago here always walk passed the various guards like you know what you are doing. Evidently school classes were on for singing and dancing. Students were coming in. I walked up the old cracking stairs in the darkened chamber and feeling a bit lost I eventually stopped a girl who looked friendly too ask her she spoke English. Not well, but well enough to tell me where the office was and that they weren’t there now. And so I would come back. (And I did but that’s an entirely different story but here’s a little preview.)

Click this and WATCH IT!

After a pleasant chat with Tamar over at Prospero’s Books, the English language bookstore, I eventually made my way over to see the Romeo and Juliet ballet by Prokofiev over at the Paliashvili Opera and Ballet State Theatre. This was now the third ballet I’d seen here after the Nutcracker in January and the Firebird in 2016. Ii was feeling like my ballet home, since the prices were both very affordable for me and of high quality. I was quite familiar with Sergei Prokofiev’s music and had long counted it as a favorite classical work. I had a perfect seat for viewing the show until a couple of women plowed through a row of folks in front of me at about the third dance. One woman of not inconsiderable size plumped down directly in front of me sitting high in her seat and sporting frizzy hair in what was practically an afro. And so I had to squirm around to see past her to the dancing, rather than sitting high in my own seat and blocking the view of the folks behind me. (But since this is Georgia, they would have suffered in silence.) Fortunately the chairs next to me never were filled and after the intermission I changed seats. And just in time for the dancing of the second half was quite stirring with the death of Tybalt and the weeping over his body hitting unexpected notes of emotion within. The finale of the ballet was also quite moving. And as the actors took their bows I noticed that Artistic Director and Prima Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili come out to present some of the bouquets.

I had quite an excellent conversation with Nina Ananiashvili back in 2016 and so I found her after the show and we made arrangements to meet again in the near future. And I left that evening walking up Rustaveli having had an excellent day of exploration, conversations, connections and ballet. I felt like I had finally reconnected with the Tbilisi I had left in 2016 and even surpassed that moment.

Romeo and Juliet Bow

Taking a Bow

Ballerina Takes Bow

Juliet, Nutsa Chekurashvili

Come again for more. And trust me there is much more. Including my first supra, my visit to the Communist past (read that over at The Anadromous Life) and too many other things to possibly catch up on. Thanks for following along with me.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

4/2/2018

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Searching for Guignol in Lyon Part 1

Early Guignols

Daniel Streble’s earliest 19th Century puppets for Guignol shows .

Arriving in Lyon off of a six hour bus ride from Paris was a new experience for me. I am used to trains. But I haven’t spent much time on European buses before. They do not ooze seediness like Greyhounds do back in the old USA. Rather they are quiet efficient, rides. Uneventful, though the mandatory roadside stop halfway certainly reminded me of an American rest stop, complete with fast food and restrooms. But that parking lot was so much cleaner. But enough about European bus travel, which will remain a cheaper oddity for me, it was time now to look for Guignol in the city of his birth, Lyon.

Byrne & Streble

With Daniel Streble in Lyon with Gnafron & Guignol.

I was accompanied again by friend and French language translator Paulette Caron. After settling into the hotel we had to scurry uphill on the a special train to go find Daniel Streble, whom Pascal Pruvost back in Paris had recommended highly, as did the folks at the Gadagne museum. Streble worked out of small theatre called Guignol Un Gone de Lyon. This was to be a children’s show and yet it was more. Streble turned out to be a voluble man with reams of data to unspool regrading this very French, nay practically the soul of Lyon, vrais lyonnais, character. We watched the show – La Fille Guignol a Disparu (Guignol’s daughter is lost). It was an enjoyable lark seeking to find and free Guignol’s daughter. Near the end the evil man was rather brutally beaten by our rascally hero. In fine French style the children present entered into the proceedings with many vocalizations and cheers.

 

Parodie of Faust

An original manuscript of the ‘Parodie de Faust’, a Guignol show from 1872 complete with censor approved stamps. Evidently Guignol shows went through a crude period in the mid-1800s and they had to submit their plays.

Guignol & Morguet Puppets

A puppet version of Morguet with a tiny Guignol on his hands.

After the show Daniel Streble graciously showed us many original handwritten Guignol plays dating from as far back as the early 19th Centuryincluding versions of Romeo and Juliet and Faust. These were truly museum pieces that were still living. Streble even accidentally torn one of the pages. But his position was that these artifacts were still alive, not ready to be embalmed in a museum. And one had the feeling that for Streble that they would never be ready for a pleasant burial. Streble then spoke with enthusiasm and eloquence about the meaning of Guignol as a character, a presence in Lyon. For him turning Guignol into a universal French character was impossible, Guignol was first and always a representative of the culture of Lyon.

Dark Traboule

A traboule probably better left unexplored.

I discovered Lyon for the first time back in 2012 when I came searching for more information about Guignol. I roamed the old town and discovered hidden traboules (dark passageways connecting the old buildings to protect the silk produced here from the elements). Paulette had been here before but never entered one, so she was properly introduced to the dark labyrynths. We also had a few truly representative French meals, which always seemed to include the tastiest imaginable versions of meats Americans usually did not even touch, cow lips, tripe, kidneys, etc. There was also the possibility of going to a French performance one evening, but when we found out that it featured only nude actors, even Franco-American Paulette had to bow out of that one.

Guignol Shells

World War I shell casings featuring hand wrought depictions of Guignol. After use they were then collected.

But there was indeed more Guignolism to uncover. On the second day we had an appointment with Clair Deglise the new Directrice of the Musée Gadagne. We did wonder if she would be amenable to the project. We had received questions from her office about whether we had insurance or not before filming anything at the museum. Evidently someone thought this was a big production. The museum was winding up an exhibition entitled Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre (Guignol 1914-1918 Mobilize for World War I and survive). It was a fascinating exhibition featuring much material on the use of Guignol as a propaganda character in puppet shows and illustrations to foster local support for the Great War. Interestingly Guignol was often enlisted in the service of nationalism. Guignolistes performed at the trenches. And evil Germans were added to Guignol’s repertoire of figures to smack around. Although at other times Guignol was also hijacked by the Left as well.

Guignol WWI Drawing

A Guignol poster celebrating front line guignolistes.

Gas Mask Mannikin

World War I was on other minds as well. A manikin wearing a gas mask of the streets of Old Lyon. Not a puppet and yet…

Clair Deglise proved to be quite sympathetic to Gravity From Above and encouraged us to return later with the crew to film puppets. With hope, and Swiss money, I plan to return either in the fall or in Spring of 2017 to capture some of the puppets at the Gadagne Museum, for this is indeed the national repository of French puppetry. Meanwhile since this show was coming down at the end of February I was given permission to photograph a bit. The glass cases and bright lighting discouraged filming.

With Claire Deglise

With Clair Deglise of the Musée Gadagne

However I would soon being meeting one of the historians who helped to put this show together. As well as members of the more postmodern troupe of guignolistes, Le Collectif ZonZons. But more about them in the next installment of our journey.

Stick around!

Puss'n'Boots

Chat Botté (Puss’n Boots) from Streble’s collection.

Byrne Power

Huémoz, Switzerland

2/3/2016

More of our writings on Guignol here.

 


In The ‘Sas’

 

Sweet Tunis (1)

Tunisian desserts in the Latin Quarter, for when you finally are willing to make the leap into the Platonic notion of the Sweet.

And so I am in Paris, which was not meant to be a real stop on the trip but more of what the French call as ‘sas’, not really a place in itself, rather a place between places like the double doors with a little space as you enter a bank, or my mud room in Alaska. A place of decompression, an airlock. And that has certainly what Paris for me has been this time around.

Parisian Street

Wandering the 5e Arrondissement at 7AM.

I walked around, soaked in the ambiance of the 5th and 6th arrondissements, sometimes soaking in the rain. I rediscovered the French food I had been craving. There is a world of difference between an actual croissant in France and what passes for a croissant in small town Alaska. Then there is the inscrutable working class charm of the croque-monsieur. There are items in the average store that simply aren’t items to be found in the average American establishment, take Saint Marcelin cheese for instance. Or a bottle of Alsatian Gevurtztraminer wine. Both found in a Carrefour Express, the closest thing I’ve ever found to a convenience store here.

Michel & Lion (1)

St. Michel and a Guardian Lion on the street in the 6e Arrondissement.

Then there are simply the streets. Even the humblest bit of architecture in old Paris is better than the best structure at present in Haines, Alaska. I spent my second morning, far too wakeful to sleep, strolling the still dark Paris winter streets, practically alone, at 7AM. I’ve spent enough time in France over the years, now making only the occasional cultural goof. Like not quite waiting for everyone to get off the Metro before I get on. Old New York habits die hard.

Paulette Caron Paris January (1)

Paulette Caron stands in front of a particularly splendid door.

I met my dear puppetry friend, Paulette Caron, who escorted me around the 5th and allowed me to explore the Pantheon, the incredible mausoleum dedicated to the greats of France: Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Diderot, Victor Hugo, etc. etc. The crypt below did its work on me. It was low vaulted and labyrinthine in a darkened stone conclave. Meanwhile above, at ground level, the massive vaulted temple itself, the statues and paintings, including a few by Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes, had a strange funereal majesty.

Female Statues Pantheon Paris

He wishes these were his Guardians. Mourners over the tomb of Diderot at the Panthéon in Paris.

I stopped in a couple of odd stores and sat at few cafés with Paulette on a rainy Parisian day. But all was not crepes and cheese.

Several forms of uneasiness all seem to descend on me together. First there was the time zone difference. And I still felt sluggish and exhausted. My body did not know what time zone it was in. And when it did remind me it was graceless. Then I had developed a sore back from all of the crammed sitting in jets. And being as I am no longer a youngster, the pain doesn’t just leave at will. And finally, worst of all, I had been discovered by some French bug that had been going around, which turned my already confused insides to soup. At first I thought it might be the food but then after mentioning it to Paulette she told me that some gastrointestinal infection had been going around.

Meanwhile with Paulette’s help I managed to nail a few more stops down. I will be visiting Charleville Meziérès and the International puppet institute for a conversation on February 2nd and 3rd. And I will be hanging out with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost again February 9th. And to complete a week of Guignolism the Gadagne museum has set up three full days on the 10th, 11th and 12th. But there weren’t many puppets for me yet.

Alas, I did get taken to one theatrical presentation called Lady MacBeth. This was a version of Shakespeare’s MacBeth as told in a one woman show as object theatre. Object theatre is sort of the mutant offspring of puppetry and the avant garde. And so; little crystal glasses represented people, moving curtains evidently represented some sort of sexual encounter and there was no actual stage blood to be seen, or at least that’s what I’m told. I missed the murder scene thanks to the bowel bug. And evidently you do not even dream of leaving mid show in France, even for a bodily nightmare. As, yes, the doors are locked from the outside. And some poor usherette, who could not quite understand why I had to leave and then had to stand outside waiting for me so that she could let me back  in. She even poked her head in the restroom at one point to say “Quel’un?” (Anyone there?) I said ‘Allo!’ Unthinkable. But in fact it has to happen at some point. Such is travel.

Broken Statue (1)

This is how I felt after my bout with the Parisian bug. A tattered statue of Christ in l’Eglise St. Severin.

There were actually a few puppetoid creatures made from a table cloth at one point. That was indeed interesting. But by and large the play did not add anything to Shakespeare’s MacBeth, except a rather facile comment at the end that the real villains were the witches who more or less seemed responsible for Lady M’s actions. Um?

And so I’m in the ‘sas’. Hoping to get settled into European existence as I cross back into England today to visit the Brothers Quay.

Byrne Power

Paris, France

24/1/2016


Josef Krofta: Tribute to a Great Artist

DRAK Šípková-Růženka Sleeping Beauty

From DRAK’s Šípková Růženka (Sleeping Beauty).

A little earlier this year I was apprised of the passing of a major artist unknown to a majority of the readers of these essays. And that I have been far too preoccupied by personal and pecuniary matters to address until now. And since the most I could find in English about him was a brief paragraph on the American site for UNIMA, and another small English language tribute in the Hradec Králové city website, where he had occupied his last years as the Deputy Mayor for Culture and Tourism, I decided I needed to write something myself.

Legendary puppeteer, theatre director and teacher Josef Krofta died on March 18th 2015, he was 71 years old. And what it makes this personal to me is that back in the fall of 2012 he graciously consented to be interviewed for Gravity From Above after being presented to me by his son, Artistic Director at the Wrocławski Teatr Lalek, Jakub Krofta. I was extremely honored to meet him. And yet I felt like the interview needed to be redone at some point for technical reasons. Also because on the day of the interview I had to drift back to Prague to interview Jan Švankmajer I didn’t get to spend as much time as I wished with him. When I learned of his death I was immediately filled with many different emotions; loss, a tinge of regret and gladness that I has indeed gotten an interview at all.

Now in the notes for my 2012 journey I didn’t write too much about him. On the page where his name appears I spent most of the time detailing my hunt for the squirrelly Švankmajer. But make no bones about it interviewing Josef Krofta was every bit as crucial to me. And in some ways more so. Švankmajer is in many ways a peripheral character in the Czech puppetry story, since his story overlaps into film and Surrealism. But Krofta is at the heart of puppetry in the post-1968 period, after the Soviet crackdown of the Prague Spring. Though decidedly not a political artist, Krofta is a member in full standing of the era of Havel and the Plastic People of the Universe. And deserves to be as well known outside of the Czech Republic.

DRAK Woyzeck

From DRAK’s 1998 production of the early modernist play Woyzeck.

Born on March 30, 1943 in Uherské Hradiště in Moravia in the former Czechoslovakia Krofta did not grow up in a family with roots in puppetry, but instead was somewhat pushed into the field by the Communist government after studying at DAMU (Academy of Performing Arts) in Prague in 1965. Puppetry, particularly after 1968, was considered safe by the authorities, since they saw it as being largely for children. He worked at the State Puppet Theatre of Bratislava, and then at the Little Theatre of Ceské Budejovice, where his gifts as a promising director began to be noticed. In 1971 he was installed as Artistic Director at DRAK in Hradec Králové, where in one form or another he stayed until his last years. It was there that he developed a unique style of puppetry that had the actors interacting directly with the figures on the stage, without the need to hide the puppeteer. Later on he incorporated elements of Alternative Theatre and circus performance into the mix.

Under Krofta’s auspices DRAK theatre performed a wide variety of plays that bridged the traditional and the modern including Pinocchio, Hamlet, The Beatles (The Czechs have a kind of fetish for the Fab Four.), Don Quixote, The Tower of Babel (It was images of this production that inspired our Reckoning Motions production of The Great Ziggurat.), The Three Golden Hairs of Old Know-it-all, the Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, The Bartered Bride, Goldilocks, Orpheus, the Three Musketeers and the Kalevala (the Finnish epic). Krofta prided himself on never doing a show that was simply for adults, yet adults certainly came regularly to DRAK. But he felt a real responsibility to nurture the imagination of children, especially as it was being assaulted from all sides with either propaganda or with hollow commercialism.

DRAK Tower of Babel

DRAK’s 1993 version of the biblical story of The Tower of Babel.

In our interview he emphasized that puppetry was something to take seriously. Even when done for children. He even expressed a distrust in the word “puppet theatre” and felt that it should instead be called “theatre with puppets”. He didn’t really think puppets should simply be used out of some loyalty to small figures, but rather he felt that they had to have a really dramatic reason to be in the play. He certainly didn’t like puppets simply because they were puppets and he cringed at the commercialization of theatre in general in the Czech Republic after the end of Soviet domination. For him puppets opened up the imagination and the possibilities of theatre. (Now there are certainly different positions on this subject of ‘puppet theatre” versus this newer conception of “theatre with puppets” but we’ll let Krofta speak for now.)

128 DRAK Bagpipes2

Tempting Devils in DRAK’s The Enchanted Bagpipes (from a 2005 performance)

In 2005, on my epochal puppet journey, I saw his version of a play called “The Enchanted Bagpipes”, the story of a Moravian bagpiper, ably performed by cast member Filip Huml, with a Moravian bagpipe, an instrument resembling the Irish uilleann pipes. The story is about a man tempted to sell his bagpipes for power, or through fear, or for riches. It is clear that the pipes represent the Czech soul. And the temptations are the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Communists and American commercialism. All the while there are costumed devils and strange figures in the mix. It was clearly an allegorical tale, which I saw played to ecstatic applause by a large group of children at the Divadlo Minor (Children’s Theatre) in Prague. And in a way this was typical of Krofta’s mix of simplicity and depth.

123 DRAK Filip Huml Pipes

Filip Huml’s Moravian bagpipes become a representation of the Czech soul in Krofta’s The Enchanted Bagpipes.

During the depths of Communist era especially towards the late Eighties as a whisper of freedom crept into the Czechoslovak culture, people flocked to puppet shows in DRAK because they were sensing hidden messages that both were there, as a dragon oppressing a village could easily be interpreted as the Russian pressure on the much smaller Czechoslovakia, and weren’t there. Krofta said they had come to a version of Romeo and Juliet desperate for secret allegorical meanings, while Krofta maintained that it was truly about love. And yet many little messages were indeed smuggled through the rather humble, unguarded door of puppetry. And yet much to his credit Krofta balked at making propaganda, even anti-Soviet propaganda. He told me that he felt that politics and art didn’t really mix. Now I think there are human truths in Krofta’s best work, that do indeed carry political implications from time to time, yet he remained determined to avoid the propagandists role. This after a lifetime under the authoritarian thumb of the Communist Empire. A lesson we could do well to learn ourselves.

Krofta became a member of the executive council of the international puppetry organization UNIMA from 1992 – 1996. He also was a guest teacher at the International Puppet Institute in Charleville-Meziérès as well as the Theater Academy in Frederikstat in Norway. He also was a Professor at DAMU in Prague. Through DRAK he also participated in a co-production with a Japanese puppet company entitled A Plague On Both Your Houses!, a variation on Romeo and Juliet. By any measure Josef Krofta was a major figure in puppetry in the 20th Century. His influence was felt both in the Czech Republic and the world. He will be missed as far away as Alaska.

Josef Krofta and Doll

Josef Krofta 1943-2015

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

5/21/2015

(The interview above with Krofta is an excerpt of a 35 minute discussion that we had in October 2012. The entire interview will one day be an extra on a DVD… When we get the backing to finish Gravity From Above.)


Mascot and Toone VIII

Toone Ancient Puppets

Ancient puppets on the wall in the museum of Le Théâtre Royal de Toone in Brussels, Belgium

Charleville-Mézières is in France on the Belgian border. My next stop was Brussels to find the Toone Marionnette Theatre, perhaps the oldest continuing puppetry organization in Europe. Yet I was on a train, then bus, then train again (don’t ask) on my way back to Paris with my back stressing load of belongings for another meeting. One of the people I had most wanted to connect with was madame Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch, the granddaughter of the first animated puppet (in fact dead bugs!) filmmaker Ladislas Starewitch, a Russian of Polish extraction, whose parents were from Lithuania. (Variously spelled Ladislaw Starevitch or Starewich, or Władysław Starewicz his birth name in Polish and even Владислав Старевич depending on the country. Since we are in France we’ll stay with the French orthography.) After the Russian Revolution Starewitch moved to Paris, less from political convictions than from the simple fact that Bolsheviks did not have the temperament to appreciate or support his sort of puppet films. Starewitch found success within a few years of his arrival in Paris and his home became a magnet for White Russian emigrés. Most of his great films were made in France: La Voix du Rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale), Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox), Le Lion Devenu Vieux (The Old Lion) and especially the miraculous Fetiche Mascotte (The Mascot) from 1933.

Starewitch is a big influence on the Brothers Quay. When I mentioned him to Švankmajer, he immediately corrected my translator who was fumbling with the name a bit. Terry Gilliam also owes him a real debt and considers The Mascot as one of the ten greatest animated films made. Tim Burton’s animated work screams Starewitch. And Fetiche Mascotte seems like a direct ancestor of Toy Story. And if Wes Anderson did not make a careful study of Starewitch before making the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’d be really surprised. Starewitch, like George Méliès, is one of those seminal figures, an original, an inventor, whose work is still literally marvelous!

The Frogs Demand King

The Stork Tyrant from Starewitch’s Frogland or The Frogs Demand King (Les Grenouilles qui Demandent un Roi) 1922

I made my way to a small café near the Bois de Vincennes to meet Madame Martin-Starewitch. I had tried several times to get in touch with her while in Paris, but alas schedules would not permit. And when she asked top meet me here two days after I had already left Paris I couldn’t turn her down. Fortunately the place was not overly crowded. I had just taken over a small booth with my three traveling packs and ordered a meal when she arrived, a bit early but that was fine with me. I still had to get to Brussels that evening.

We immediately began to talk. Her English was good enough to understand me thoroughly when I explained the nature of the project. The Brothers Quay had wondered if she remembered meeting them back in the 80’s at a conference in Annecy. She did indeed, and fondly. She was glad to know that their work owed such a debt to her grandfather. One of the first things she had told me was that they had recently found a longer version of Fetiche Mascotte that superseded all of the other versions. To puppet folk and animation fans this was good news indeed!

Starewitch

Starewitch on the set of The Old Lion

Also she told me that in addition to the four DVDs of Starewicz work currently available in France (with English subtitles, etc) there would be another four due to hit in the near future including one with the longest version of The Mascot. While she was the guardian of her grandfather’s legacy Starewitch is still hardly a household name. The one American DVD issued a while ago and now out of print was essentially a bootleg made without any funds ever returning to the estate. We both agreed that what was needed was a film like Hugo that made prominent use of Starewitch the way Scorsese had used Méliès. And she had stories of her grandfather that were certainly film worthy in themselves. All in all it was an excellent meeting with Madame Martin-Starewitch and she too was game for an interview and to use her grandfather’s work in Gravity From Above.

Now it was time to move on to get to Brussels. After passing through the Metro again, while sitting next to a hip young girl in a real fur coat (something you’d never see in America), listening to an entire string ensemble playing Baroque music at the busy Châtelet stop and paying an extra hundred dollars to get a train to Brussels, thanks again to the disconnect between the rail passes and life on the ground, I arrived, my back demanding rest in a rather industrial hotel near the old center of Brussels at around 21h00. Unfortunately my current information on the Toone had said that they had performed that day but were not to play again for a few more days. Had I come straight from Charleville without the extra stop I would have made it! But that Parisian meeting was very important.

Brussels in the Rain

Bruxelles in the Rain

I then strolled Bruxelles in the dark, passing the central cathedral bathed in purple light, and locating Le Théâtre Royal de Toone all the while slowly savoring a couple of Belgian chocolates. The next day, after sleeping in to give my aching muscles a rest, I wandered through the old town under a light rain. I stopped into to see if I could glean anything from restaurant that was also a part of the Toone theatre and it turned out that they were indeed playing that night! So much for relying on websites as some sort of final word…

Hanging at Toone

Puppets Hanging in the Rafters at the Toone Theatre. (Note the Nazi Skeleton Puppet – Top Row Center)

I drifted around the town, found some old record stores, though sadly left the wares in their bins by command of my spine. That evening I entered the Toone restaurant again to wait for the theatre upstairs to open. The show for the evening was Romeo and Juliet á la Toone. Eventually the Royal Toone VIII himself, Nicolas Géal arrived in buoyant spirits to open the door to the stairs for us. Géal is the son of Toone José Géal, an important puppeteer in his own right who bequeathed the theatre to Nicolas back in 2003 in a coronation ceremony by the town Burgomaster. (Toone is pronounced ‘tone’ and a Belgian nickname for the original Toone I, Antoine Genty, who started the theatre a few years back in 1830.)

Michel de Ghelderode Poster

A battered old poster for one of Toone’s Michel de Ghelderode Productions

An eager throng ascended, passing old Toone posters, including the Passion play of the legendary modern playwright and puppet enthusiast Michel de Ghelderode. In the theatre itself we sat beneath over a hundred figures, each about one third human scale, that were hanging from the rafters high above us: such figures as Nazis with skulls for heads, Napoleon, knights in armor, many princesses and scores of variations on the classic Toone hero Woltje, a jaunty figure in checkered clothes and cap.

Woltje

A classic representation of Brussels – Woltje

Eventually maximum density for the evening had been achieved and Toone VIII emerged to greet us to the evenings production of Romeo and Juliet. He then vanished behind a side curtain and the farce began in an outrageous nasal quacking French/Dutch dialect. Woltje plays Romeo. Juliet has the face of a doll. Mercutio is played by another classic Toone figure with a nose long enough to be sold by a hotdog vendor. In the middle of one scene, Romeo is distracted by a cellphone call. Obviously it’s not exactly word for word Shakespeare. But it certainly is amusing.

At the Ball

The Toone Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet Farce in Bruxellois dialect!

During the intermission Nicolas Géal invites us all down to the ‘museum’, which does have quite a few battered antique characters on the wall, but really this is a chance to down a bit of another Belgian specialty, beer, which I must confess is an excellent way to spend the halftime. After about twenty minutes we then watched the rest of the show, which being a comedy does not exactly have the same ending as the Shakespearean tragedy. Death comes for Romeo and Juliet, but seconds before he can take the dead puppets is unceremoniously booted off stage my the monk.

Nicolas Géal

Toone VIII Nicolas Géal of Le Théâtre Royal de Toone in Bruxelles

After the show I spent a while talking with Géal about Toone history. I reminded him of a strange story of one of the Toone marionettists who was found dead hanging among his puppets. To confirm the fact, he showed me a book that his mother wrote back in the 70’s about the history of the Toone theatre, complete with oodles of illustrations. It’s a book I determined to track down some day. He also explained something about the weird Brussels accent that used to be Dutch with some French but over the years had become French with some Dutch. Géal was delighted to have Toone performances captured when I returned for part two of this journey next year. And I was pleased to have another solid contact for the future.

And I can also gladly say when in Belgium do not miss Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Tell Toone VIII that you heard about it from me. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. You’re in Brussels, a place where language is so polyglot that your original tongue doesn’t matter to anyone. (Still, at least try to learn a few French greetings.)

Next we cross La Manche to enter Angleterre.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

December 22, 2012

For more information on Starewitch go here:

http://ls.pagesperso-orange.fr/tsommair.htm

And to discover Le Théâtre Royal de Toone try this:

http://www.toone.be/