If you’re wary about sitting through an hour-long production, told in Russian with English subtitles, about two Georgian locomotives in love who must make sacrifices to be together, well, don’t be. The puppets are ornate, gorgeous, colorful feats of imagination. The script is witty, sweet, and smart. The humans clad in all black pulling the strings move with the deftness of surgeons. Ramona is not thrilling, or challenging. But that’s OK. It’s simply a well-told story that will leave you feeling that you’ve regained some sense of whimsy, a little lightness that you left on the tracks long ago.
The story begins in the dark. Tiny locomotives move across the stage with little lights glimmering, intermittent steam and whistles announce their passage. Hand-painted backdrops appear, a light comes on, and an old man begins to speak. “Love comes in twos,” voice deep, words in Russian. A horizontal screen above the stage shows the English translation. It may be because I was sitting pretty far up in the theater, but the words were at the perfect angle; I could watch the puppets and read the words simultaneously, without missing a beat. And you don’t want to miss a beat, because with marionettes, it’s all in the details.
This old man, his puppet body ever so slightly bent, as if he’d been traversing these tracks for decades, continues to philosophize about love. He is not a part of the narrative, just an omniscient narrator of sorts. He sets the stage for what the main characters will learn, and struggle with, throughout the rest of the production: love means sacrifice.
We meet Ramona, the shunting engine heroine of our tale, who is relegated to remain in her station, unable to move more than 300 meters forward or backward from this center. Ramona has friends here, though. A streetlight with tiny human legs. A chicken and a pig, who bemoan the news in the paper that pork production is at an all time high. We see what Ramona sees; trains come through with bickering couples, with women throwing out red fox furs and red heels (the chicken is quick to don these). We meet Ermon, the handsome hulking locomotive who steals Ramona’s heart. He’s sent to Siberia to help rebuild infrastructure, providing food and medical supplies to those in need. He writes letters to Ramona on his journey, and she dreams of the day when his smoke will appear at the top of the mountain, marking his return home.
Ramona’s animal friends tell her about a circus that is rumored to be passing through. They’re on the lamb, it seems, for “fare-dodging.” The troupe of circus characters are a hoot, and the audience responds with glee whenever they start their silly banter. The circus needs Ramona to transport them to the town where their circus tent has been left. But, of course, Ramona is not allowed to leave her station. Ramona asks the circus master why he can’t use the circus horses to carry them — ”Well because they only know how to waltz!” There are waltzing horses, a strong man, a tiny tightrope walker, and magic tricks aplenty. At one point, while trying to convince Ramona to help them, the circus master gets in a box, ostensibly threatening to saw himself in half if she doesn’t assist. He survives, but his feet are somehow sawed off. The ringleader later receives a letter from his feet, who tell him they’re better off without him, as he never treated them as well as his hands.
Gabriadze is a clever man, and interspersed with the comic antics of the circus are jokes that poke some fun at the USSR and the audience snickered appreciatively.
Ramona, torn between wanting to assist her new friends and not wanting to be punished for leaving her station, receives another letter from Ermon. He tells her that after seeing all of the people who need help in Siberia, he’s learned that one should “never never tell anyone no if you’re their last hope.” The words play over and over, a single bright light flashing across the stage and into the audience “never never say no” and Ramona, trusting the man who has her heart, promises to help the circus.
I won’t say what happens when Ramona joins this motley crew, but I will say that the two locomotives are reunited in the end. The reunion, even though I realized that it was between two puppets, and trains at that, brought me to tears (note, I cry easily). Ermon tells Ramona that on his long journey he only thought of her. “I told the puddles, the poles, the streetlights about you.”
It’s lovely, and I leave the theater with the words in my mind, playing over and over.