Now that I’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s probably time to address that subhead on my festival overview story that says I’m a “sucker for puppets.”
My first experience with puppets used in a serious theatrical production was Peter and Wendy at the festival in 1996. That still remains one of my most thrilling theater experiences and opened my eyes to what puppets could do. Not that puppets had not been used in theater for hundreds of years, especially in the Far East and Europe (and the more traditional Colla Marionettes had been coming to the festival for many years), but I’d never seen anything like that before.
Puppets have continued to make appearances at the festival during the past 20 years — sometimes well, sometimes not. Basil Twist, the puppet master for Peter and Wendy, staged Ottorini Respighi’s puppet opera Sleeping Beauty in the Forest at the festival in 2005, and while it was a bit clunky, it was charming and magical.
In Columbia, where I live, there has been a marionette theater for 30 years, mostly doing fairy tale-based kid’s shows. About a decade ago, some of the puppeteers there expanded the offerings with more adult fare using all sorts of imaginative puppetry techniques. During the past few years they’ve mounted several “puppetry slams” in Columbia. Not everything has been great, but they’ve done some amazing work by puppetry artists from around the Southeast and they’re getting an incredible response. I couldn’t attend the last one because it was sold out far in advance.
I’ve seen puppet shows throughout Europe, in Vietnam and Uzbekistan.
The winter before Twist did Sleeping Beauty I visited him in New York. We went out for coffee and he ordered a tall, frothy drink which came with a long, thin spoon. There at the sidewalk table he brought that spoon to life.
Something similar happened over the weekend when the director and a couple of the puppeteers from Midsummer sat down for a “Conversations” piece and one of them turned a water bottle into an interesting character on the spot. They also showed off a couple of the crazy fairy puppets and a gas bottle, one of the many homemade instruments that would provide the score.
Getting an advance view and looking at stellar resumes (some of the Midsummer team created War Horse) can be a dangerous thing, setting up unrealistic expectations. But I’ve been getting the story before the show for years and can keep my expectations in check.
What I didn’t expect was this mess of Midsummer with gross misuse of puppets and play. This is possibly one of the most misguided plays I’ve ever seen at the festival or anywhere.