Puppet States

Artistic matters aren't so happy over in the new South Africa, where post-apartheid problems are confusingly complex, unlike those of the good old days when there was a government to hate, a race to love, and a smallish number of white liberals caught in between. Now there are economic problems, corruption cases, tribal rivalries, plus vast systems of public works to put into a newly civilized order. Not to mention decades of a hideous heritage that won't go away quietly, many of its worst memories still fresh and bitter. The peculiar institution the new South Africa has invented to deal with this last item, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is at once so informative and so ineffectual that it would constitute another problem for the new nation--if it didn't seem in small ways to be doing a lot of good.

This paradox was presumably intended as the core of William Kentridge's Ubu and the Truth Commission, but his focus on it seems to have been mislaid along the way. Kentridge mixes a lot of elements: puppets and live actors, animation and news footage, verbatim testimony from the Commission and tidbits of Jarry's Ubu Roi. He mixes languages, and he mixes races--Pa Ubu white, Ma Ubu black--so cavalierly you might never know what apartheid was all about.

He gets little things right, especially in the animation, which seems to be his chief interest. (The use of the puppets is fairly perfunctory.) Pa Ubu, who seems to have been something big in the Afrikaner police, has a crocodile confidant, who naturally doubles as a bag, from which Ma Ubu extracts the detailed description of Pa's activities that she reads to the Commission. Pa gets awfully panicky about consequences, but there don't seem to be any. However valid that may be as political comment, it makes an awfully tenuous theatrical event.


Tinka's New Dress
By Ronnie Burkett
International Festival of Puppet Theater
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street

Ubu and the Truth Commission
By William Kentridge
International Festival of Puppet Theater
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street

This is puzzling, for in fact the somber, forgiving Truth Commission has a lot in common with Jarry's crass, vicious, unrelenting hero. Ubu's glory is his openness; he revels in his filth and rapacity. The Commission doesn't revel, but it opens its rostrum to all who have a story to tell. Either way, it's the naked truth. Kentridge's Ubu, skulking about and starting at shadows, is more like the people Jarry's Ubu runs roughshod over. No appetitive glory for him; we never get a glimpse of his motives, only his excuses. Kentridge, as jumpy as his hero, seems to leap from device to device as a way not to discuss the subject at hand. No wonder the piece has so little cumulative effect.

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