Beyond Human

Youki-za brought to the Japan Society the more traditional items in its repertory--the same comic kyogen and Kabuki plays that live actors perform. As in Balinese theater (and Shakespeare), comedy enlivens the most heart-wrenching dramas. A cranky noodle vendor and a drunken customer hilariously belch out the background information for a tale of conspiracies and feudal power struggles, although the tragic core of Meiboku Sendai Hagi concerns Masaoka, nursemaid to a princeling. So loyal is she to her duty that she watches in silence while a conspirator kills her little son, mistaking him for the royal heir. During this palace scene, with many characters, the puppeteers are out of sight overhead, and the dolls truly seem miniature. But when the mother weeps in private over her son, her handler, Magosaburo, appears with her. Gidayu reciter Sokyo Takemoto (the 84-year-old mother of the clan) moans and shrieks the grieving words and the puppeteer writhes with his little heroine (even while black-clad prop men crawl in and affix a tiny knife to her hand so she can avenge her son). The puppet seems larger, more empowered, and the emotion, multiplied by three, immense.

Ahab's Wife, based on an idea by its designer, Ellen Driscoll, is an imaginative gloss on Melville's novel. In this dance-theater piece, puppets serve mainly to lend a hallucinatory surge and thrash to the wrecking of the Pequod. One of Driscoll's structures, however, becomes almost animate. At moments it's a giant hoopskirt, engulfing and disgorging the heroine and her younger self, but it billows like a silky gray sea; when wires suspend it on end, its waistband becomes a porthole, an eye.

Black beauty: In Eclipse, horses evolve from star athletes to buddies.
Antoine Poupel
Black beauty: In Eclipse, horses evolve from star athletes to buddies.


Big Top at Battery Park City
Through November 1
(718) 636-4100

International Festival of Puppet Theater
Through September 27

The choreographed images and the words by poet Tom Sleigh range from stunningly mysterious to maddeningly enigmatic. In this seriously postmodern assault on Melville's text, Ahab's wife, excellently acted by Randy Danson, becomes central. Layers of past and present swim together. In addition to searching for her vanished lover (Ahab as a youth? It isn't clear) and for the fan she received from him and lost overboard, she talks on the telephone, and, attired in oilskins with a pipe and mustache, does a Groucho Marx mirror number with a double. The Whale (the impressive Robert Langdon Lloyd) stalks about in a black overcoat (Ahab's?) making grimly oracular utterances. The stage on which sailors labor and roister, the props they handle, become shifting and unstable. Like dreams. Like the sea.

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