Posted by: strugglesome | April 14, 2011

Puppet Master: PIFA Presents L’histore du Soldat

As someone who grew up being told Russian fairy tales, I can assure you that Russian fairy tales are weird. People lose eyes all the time, a house on legs wanders through the woods, tiny horses save kingdoms, it’s a very strange assortment of stories to tell one’s children. But perhaps it’s also a wonderful legacy as well, because who but children would be able to see the magic in these stories, the strange danger in these tales, and believe so deeply in such convoluted creations. And as I watched L’histore du Soldat, a collaboration between director and puppeteer Robert Smythe and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia conducted by Dirk Brosse, presented by the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, I couldn’t think how wonderful this piece would be for children. It’s just a shame there weren’t any in attendance.

The sweetly complicated tale of a Solider who makes a pact with the Devil and then finds it all going awry, as deals with Satan tend to do, the score by Igor Stravinsky is wonderful, and wonderfully played by the Chamber Orchestra. At once cheery and foreboding, Stravinsky’s music is the nod this production makes to Paris, which is rather funny given that the original translator from Russian to French was Swiss author C. F. Ramuz, and the original production of this work premiered in Switzerland. But if the Swiss aren’t going to fight any battles I suppose they won’t kick up the dust over this production either, so we can leave them to their cheese and chocolate and just enjoy the show. Traditionally performed with a narrator (in this case the soothing tones of Dan Kern) with a solider (L J Norelli) and the devil (Michael Stimson) acting out the show, this production has also included puppets  (created by Smythe and operated by David Quinn) as well as a love interest, the princess (Sara Yoko Howard), and a series of projections, both video clips and still images, designed by Jorge Cousineau. Cousineau’s work coupled with Kern’s narration gives the piece a kicky film reel vibe, channeling early cinema and Loony Tunes to underline the morality tale being told here, that is, don’t make deals with the devil, and if you do, and free yourself, follow the rules, or you will jump right back into his evil grasp. Also, money isn’t everything. Also, true love conquers all. Alright, there are a lot of morals to this story, but that’s life, isn’t it, the path to righteousness is strewn with cautionary tales.

Although ably performed by all involved, brilliantly played by the orchestra and well designed (lovely costumes by Susan Smythe and solid lighting design by Daniel Bonitsky round out the stage), this piece is at a huge disadvantage because of it’s environment. Putting a production on this scale in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman theater divorces the work from any opportunity for intimacy and detail, both of which are requirements when dealing with puppets of this size. The piece is simply swallowed by the theater, a small spot of brightness in a huge gaping black cave. With Cousineau’s video as the only context, we are left grasping for an understanding of the atmosphere and location, and when Kern leaves the stage for the second half of the piece and we only get to hear his disembodied voice we feel adrift, concerned about what has become of our faithful narrator. Quinn’s work as puppeteer with Smythe’s adorable figurines is well done; The Princesses’ dance is precious if overlong, and the solider in Quinn’s hands becomes relatable despite his inanimate nature, but it all gets lost against the sheer size of the space. And while it is clever that the solider shifts from person to puppet once he is in the hands of the devil and then transforms back to a person after he has broken free from evil’s greedy hands, the convoluted story dwarfed by its elephantine setting leaves us straining to see rather than fully satisfied. But then, the orchestra is so excellent that if all else fails you can always just close your eyes and listen.

L’histore du Soldat has closed, but hopefully Smythe will continue to create pieces of puppetry and magic. Since Smythe’s Mum Puppet Theater closed it’s doors for the last time there has been a severe shortage of puppets in this town, and with any luck, this production will help in their revival. More information about the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra can be found here.

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