I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. Yet this journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part three of six posts. Bon Courage!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
In the pitch blackness of that hall a white light was projected some ten yards away from us against a rough textured pale stone wall and against a tall brunette girl who was dressed in a white robe. Her hair was minimized being pulled back. She appeared to us almost as a statue from classical antiquity. Written words scrolled horizontally on the wall, against her human form. She began to speak in a clear burning voice. From what I could gather with my faulty French she was speaking about war and about what kind of people we are in relationship to war and to fear. The projection and the lights vanished. In the utter dark she held a wooden box that was then opened in a way loosely reminiscent of Pandora. Light shone from the box. She moved spectrally towards us asking questions as she paused to place broken puppets on nearly invisible black boxes. Where does war come from? She advanced closer and closer to us with her crippled marionettes. All were white or dirty beige, and while missing limbs, they were clearly homunculi, though none had defining features, hair, clothing, even color. She continued speaking about war and fear as she little by little drew nearer and nearer to us.
She stopped directly in front of us before two waist high felt covered platforms. Transfixing our eyes she removed the last two puppets from the box. Though, like the others, they were both featureless and white they were also both completely intact and quite clearly male and female. I say they were featureless but this was not true of their faces. While hairless and unclothed, like unfinished dolls off an assembly line, their faces were genuinely distinct, even riveting. This may have something to do with their eyes, which caught the light and reflected it back. The puppeteer then began to speak through the female form. She turned to look at the male puppet and she began to ask him about fear and war and life. The robed girl then changed positions slightly and began to articulate the male figure in more defiant gestures and to speak his voice. Basically he said that there is no reason to fear, these things are all just a part of life. You have to be strong, get used to it. The female continued to plead with him to help her understand. He became more incensed, more frustrated. She in turn was pleading now too much, too pitifully and he in turn was now frighteningly angered. The puppeteer, though directly before us the entire time, so inhabited the characters, that she had disappeared into each of them by turns. Finally she posed them each in their habitual attitudes: the female homunculus in a supplicating position, the male in defiance. The white robed specter finally turned away from them repeating her questions about war then sadly proclaiming all that remains is the blood. The lights were then extinguished.
The small audience applauded the riveting performance with vigor. The program notes explained that Julia’s piece was an extract of a longer work by Perrine Griselin, entitled ‘Si le vent le dit’ (If Spoken by the Wind). The program notes also explained that all of the solos had to be collaborations with contemporary authors, that each piece was to be seven to ten minutes in length and that marionnettes (the French word for all puppets not just hanging string puppets as our similar word suggests) were optional. People casually began to leave the room. I stood there almost in shock. My thinking processes were now on a high state of alert. Where did war come from? Indeed. I wasn’t expecting this, not to be engaged so directly. I was beginning to get a glimpse of something, a possibility, a fork in a road not taken. But I still didn’t have the time to mull it over. The dark haired woman with the ponytail was beckoning us further along. There wasn’t much I could do but follow.
We scaled perhaps three or four floors worth of steps to arrive at a converted attic. The ceiling was angled like its roof directly above it. We sat in two slanted rows in simple chairs. An aisle divided the seating arrangement in half. The room’s lighting was muted though not black. A cabinet of sorts cobbled together out of scrap wood lay to our immediate left. Further in the wooden floor was strewn with carpenter’s dust and debris. And off to the right was a hastily constructed cross standing on a small wooden base. We sat in the dimly lit room awaiting whatever would come next. There was a dragging, scraping sound behind us. From the center aisle a tall young man with sandy brown hair and a face I immediately recognized as Polish dragged three crosses in on his shoulders. He also had a collection of little placards on bits of rope. If you wanted you could hang one around your neck. The placards were more than strongly reminiscent of Christ’s I.N.R.I. placard featured in so many works of art, but these were merely blank pieces of old wood. He turned slowly towards us as he passed. He stopped, then handed one of the placards to a man sitting in the audience. He gave the now condemned man the slightest and slyest of knowing smiles. He dispensed one more in a like manner then he dragged his cargo over to the center of his ‘stage’.
He began to speak as he set up the three extra crosses. He spoke of the names on the blank placards, names only he would know. He hung them on each of the four crosses. Olga’s name made him smile wistfully. But when he read one man’s name and as he hung the placard upon his crucifix he suddenly grabbed the cross in such a manner that he was transferred into the crucified man himself and he writhed and bellowed suddenly in a tortured voice. He continued on with a dialogue between crosses and the crucified. Unfortunately I did not pick up all of the nuances of his words, but it was clear to me that he was the crucifier and that all of these stories intersected at different points, and that the greatest harm had been wrought upon Olga. But then the story began to plumb a deeper level of questioning: why evil, why torture, why death. Yet our executioner could not escape his own culpability. He stretched out his hands in a gesture of both crucifixion and supplication. The lights dimmed to black. Then a thick beam of light radiated from the homemade cabinet, or was it a confessional. He crawled along through the nails and sawdust and other carpenter’s refuse towards the light in the box. He knelt before a small window and prayed earnestly in Polish. A strange cobweb textured blank white mask emerged from the dark. No words were spoken. Then it was submerged back into the void. Something was wrong. He investigated the cabinet. He pulled out a chair with the mask connected to it. He picked up the mask, looked through the back of it, placing it over his face. He turned it over in his hands, finally facing it, then holding it as a doubting Hamlet before the skull of Yorrick he studied it in silence. At last he said that perhaps it would be best if we didn’t go any further and just leave this where it is. The lights were then killed.
Applause, naturally, as before, and a head, mine, that was assembling puzzle pieces together at a furious rate. Then a quick check to the brochure: Polish all right, with a name nearly unpronounceable in the English tongue, Przemyslaw Piotrowski. This too was based on a text by Thierry Panchaud. Besides the fact that I wanted to engage the actor in a long conversation about the existence of God, my memory was also taking detailed notes of every element I observed. Having left my camera and audio recorder at the hotel I itched to put this experience into a bottle somehow, which is probably why I have such a good recollection of these performances. I have discovered that in life there is such a thing as ‘new time’. New time is present during experiences that are absolutely without precedent in one’s life; firsts in most categories – a first trip to Europe, a first day on a new job or a first kiss. With new time experiences we are completely present, taking in far more detail than normal. I can still vividly remember the first day of my initial visit to Switzerland back in 1978. All of the strangeness of the new thing colonizes our memory with powerful primary impressions. That is what was happening to me here at Charleville. I could sense that I had entered a zone that was completely distinct from anything else in my experience. However, before I could even acknowledge that, even as these things were being stenciled into me, I had to move yet again, back down the stairs, back through the wood shop, all the way beyond the felt covered hall of Julia Kovacs’ performance where I began to hear a woman’s voice piercing the air with haunted declamations recited in a tone of sad finality.
At the end of the long black hall we turned a corner into what was now another long room that felt like the brown dead leaves of autumn. Yellowing shafts of light illuminated the walls, which were covered in brown paper with handwritten words listed upon them. Tombstone rows of walnuts in sand were arrayed on the floor beneath the scrolls. Further back into the room was a shadowy forest of dangling signs. Even further back along the nethermost wall there were dead branches. Looking up at the wall a woman dressed in an ornate pale antique blouse and a floor length black skirt held a dark brown basket of walnuts while reading from the scrolls. Her voice was strong, prophetic, plaintiff. It was hard to believe that this was the same petite unassuming soft-spoken raven-haired girl who had ushered us into Julia Kovac’s presentation not even an hour before. Yet indeed it was, and the transformation had been accomplished without an extra milligram of make up. She had just thrown some sort of interior switch and voilà.
Her voice intoned what I assumed to be a history of an important man named Jean (John). She read aloud the noble attributes of his public life in a rhythmic tone. At last she knelt down and picked up a lone walnut and presented to us the personage of ‘Jean le mort’ (John the Dead). She turned and walked away from us further into the room. She stopped behind a table upon which rested an empty dresser drawer filled with sand. We followed her into the autumnal chamber and stopped in front of the table. To the sides of the sandbox were square wooden boxes filled what looked like twisted roots with round white faces. They were made of dead grapevine branches and simple little plaster faces; actually direct tributes to artist Jephan de Villiers and his sad world of Arbonia. She picked one up, a straight ‘root’; held it face up and very carefully moved it towards us, towards the edge of the drawer. As she did she imbued it with a personality, speaking its thoughts. She then planted it in the sand, leaving it there rooted in the earth. She took up another more twisted root-creature and likewise, yet in a different voice, she moved it next to its companion. Then she did it again and again and again; different shapes, different voices, now quizzical, now cooing, now serious, now childlike; until at last their seemed be nearly twenty of them in the box, in the sand all hungry, all digging in, looking for the human food. She paused. She picked up her basket again and walked us further into her strange autumnal labyrinth through a forest of signs made of brown cardboard or wood with handwritten French phrases that were too poetic for me to quite comprehend. She read from a few of them. When we arrived on the other side of the hanging signs she raised her hands across a couple of elaborately twisted grapevines, now representative of walnut trees, and she too had lights in her palms. Yet rather than use them for illumination, this time they were used for animation as the shadows of the dead branches now grew and grew against the last wall by her art. She approached a door off to the side. She rapped once and it opened. She bid us to step through into the light of day. As we passed she handed us each a walnut, a reminder of death, the fruit of our decomposition, an emblem of hope.
The sky has never seemed so blue.
After the last of our small cluster of wanderers had emerged from that autumn chamber the petite raven-haired girl stepped out behind us. As we stood in a lazy semicircle we clapped our hands. The girl, Aurelia Ivan, smiled sweetly as she resumed her unassuming status. The piece was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man). My head was exploding by this time with ideas both creative and intellectual. Still I couldn’t take the time to sift these things out. There was yet one more performance to take in to finish off the set. But this one was much more of a straight theatrical meditation on the Marilyn Monroe image of femininity by Morana Dolenc, based on a text by Eddy Pallaro. Since it was presented in a standard theatrical venue, without much that would connect it to the world of puppetry or object theatre, it didn’t set off many fresh alarm bells in my head, although it did contain an interesting mobile of small mirrors. That was probably just as well. My brain was requesting a teensy bit of time for vital reflection or philosophical musing, whichever came first. But that would have to be delayed a little while longer. Before I could even eat lunch, nay dinner, I still had one more thing to do; one more place to be.
28 / 6 /2020
Coming Soon: Hands in the Dark #4 – Missing Pieces
Or go back to the earlier sections