Device Squads

Currently on View: Puppets, Politics, Pianologue, and Peonage

The thundering stampede of new plays having abated with the arrival of prize-giving season, the New York theater doesn't pause, but uses its breathing space to show off other forms of stage fauna, starting with the best actors automatically disqualified for acting awards: puppets. A biennial festival that gets bigger every second autumn isn't enough for these heartless creatures—now they want spring as well. Luckily, they're not so narcissistic as most actors, so their shows tend to be short; brevity is the soul of puppetry.

Don Marquis (1878-1937), novelist, playwright, and light versifier, invented archy the cockroach and his pals from "the under side" in 1916, as a quick way to fill Marquis's humor column in The New York Sun: archy, a "vers libre bard" who has been reborn as a cockroach, expressed his view of life in uncapitalized (roaches can't hold down the shift key), unpunctuated, straggling lines several times a week till 1927, when his misadventures appeared in book form, with delightful illustrations by George Herriman (better known for creating Krazy Kat). The work stayed popular through my childhood—it was even made into a musical, with Carol Channing (on disc) and Eartha Kitt (onstage) as archy's boon companion, mehitabel the alley cat. The current adaptation, Communications From a Cockroach (Here), a collaboration of Ralph Lee's Mettawee River Company and Scott Cargle's Shakespeare Project, makes an excellent start at restoring it to New York's Swiss-cheesy memory, always amnesic about its own best pleasures. (The show, which closes at Here this week, will tour city parks all summer.)

Possibly because the 1957 musical (coauthored by some guy named Mel Brooks) retains partial rights to Marquis's work, the new adaptation pokes into odd and unexpected realms of archyana. There's no attempt to shape an overriding story; the effect is much like seeing a set of newspaper columns acted out. Some of the material, including a series of swipes at Prohibition, feels dated. Other pieces have a fresh topicality: Marquis spoofed the 1927 NYPD crackdown on "bedroom" plays that got Mae West 10 days on Rikers, by having archy imagine a play in which all the characters are beds. Lee's hilarious realization of this premise—the high point of the 75-minute evening—turns a blast from the past into a smart contemporary kick at both local decency commissions and dehumanized "conceptual" ideas of theater.

Communications From a Cockroach: blast from the pest
photo: Richard Termine
Communications From a Cockroach: blast from the pest

Puppets being so human, Lee's handheld figures easily bring off Marquis's larger dual joke—that insects and other verminous critters are just like us, and that we, from their low-angle vantage point, are a batch of overgrown, bullying ephemeridae. Apart from the drama of the squabbling beds, the work's two peaks are a battle between archy's nemesis, freddy the rat, and a visiting tarantula; and a scene in which archy, having strayed from the newspaper office, becomes a source of marital strife to a suburban married couple (cleverly built smaller than the insects and rodents). The four young manipulators, who also speak and sing the text, are unsteady in the pitch department but otherwise excellent. Neil Kirkwood's appealing score, '50s-style laid-back bop for three players, evokes a handy midpoint between Marquis's time and our own. Marquis himself, incidentally, probably knew nothing about Kafka, whose famous story of a human transmogrified into a roach was first published the year of archy's invention. Clearly, it isn't just lack of capital letters and commas that makes his humor seem so modern.

Stravinsky's Petrushka, on the other hand, has always seemed a classical, possibly even an ancient, story, something like an upside-down Othello, its "modern" twist being that its characters begin as puppets and end shedding real blood. The music mirrors this reality jump by scoring its folklike tunes with biting bitonalities, proleptic cross-rhythms, and compulsive ostinati, like an old family recipe in a tingly new sauce. Basil Twist's version (Clark Studio, Lincoln Center), as richly flamboyant as Stravinsky's festive harmonies, caught the work's freewheeling spirit wonderfully: Here even the onion domes danced, and the three characters moved with unheard-of flexibility. (The piece required nine manipulators.) What Twist couldn't do, puppets being puppets, was convey the transformation to humanity: His scenario explained that Petrushka, slain by the Moor, "escapes his puppet slavery through death's release. His spirit carries on to dance and love." In performance, though, the effect was to reaffirm Petrushka's puppetness; no tears are shed for characters who carry on eternally, a way in which puppets are superior to us. Still, Petrushka isn't a piece based on terror and tears; the forays into abstraction by which Twist tried to convey his hero's emotional torment were vivid enough to justify their presence as simple decoration. Julia and Irina Elkina, sister duo pianists, supported Twist's spectacle with a gritty, lively performance of Stravinsky's score, executing it a little splashily at times, but summoning nearly as many colors from their keyboards as you normally hear in the later and more commonly played orchestral version. They opened the evening with a crisp, smart reading of the composer's 1944 Sonata for Two Pianos, wittily accompanied by Twist with a set of rectangular shapes performing what might best be described as a Busby Berkeley homage to Josef Albers.

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