Puppet Demolition: Hypnotizing Visions of a Chilling Future Come Zooming Out of the Past
When Filippo Marinetti dictated the tenets of Italian Futurism in 1909, his emphasis was on speed, aggression, energy. He looked forward to a world in thrall to its technological geist, a new century animated by velocity itself. Marinetti wrote his ode not just to "deep-chested locomotives" but also to war, "the world's only hygiene." The astonishing thing about that 105-year-old manifesto? Marinetti's ideas — fascist and brutal — are still dangerously seductive. And so when world-class puppeteer Dan Hurlin mounts some of Futurism's unproduced puppet plays, we find ourselves aghast at just how current they feel.
Demolishing Everything With Amazing Speed, a part of Bard SummerScape, is Hurlin's translation and production of four of Fortunato Depero's Futurist dramas: the never-produced 1917 microworks Safe (a weird object ballet), Acrobatic Suicides and Homicides (a sketch of grief turning into the death urge), Automatic Thief (the comedy of a hypnotist-cum-robber), and Electric Adventure (a thriller about adulterous lovers). Depero, a painter and graphic designer, isn't the most famous of the Futurists, but his blocky aesthetic will be familiar to anyone who's seen a Campari advertisement. His designer's eye is apparent in the Demolishing scripts, which frequently abandon plot for image and motion. Puppeteers use projections, bunraku puppets, and miniature sets to execute seemingly impossible stage directions: Tables move, leaving contents hanging midair, and an elevator zooms up through the clouds.
In these plays, the victims are all dolls; anything that breaks can be stuck back together. Yet somehow, this only makes the tragedies seem more real. Certainly, watching them, we experience that cold fascination with pain that we do, secretly, in life. In Suicides, puppeteers manipulate a gorgeous two-foot-tall aristocrat, her single eye a baleful circle of concentric greens. She climbs floating red stairs; after she jumps, we see that eye — a wooden wheel as innocent-seeming as a top — roll across a table. In Electric Adventure, the narrator (Jennifer Kidwell) tells us that an epileptic woman "quickly bows with her head, so violently it kills a child/Who is near." We laugh when a bright-purple child-puppet flops over dead. (What's wrong with us?) Battling spouses tear each other's eyes out. A homicidal Count, his columnar silver head like a factory whistle, levels a rifle at an abstract circus. He shoots. Police die; acrobats die; mourners die.
At first the waves of Punch-and-Judy-style murder strike us as childlike, even silly, but as they accrue, they gain weight and horror. Hurlin isn't simply reviving century-old plays — he's showing us the mechanisms by which we let the past century happen. Accompanied by eerie electronica (Dan Moses Schreier composed the score) and masterful digital projections (Tom Lee), Hurlin's puppets hypnotize us with their gleaming beauty, and we begin to invest them with forces both human and uncanny. The violence is so presciently modern that Bard's director of theater programs, Gideon Lester, made a curtain speech acknowledging its awful echoes in the news. As I stumbled out, my own eyes spinning, I realized he had barely prepared us.
Demolishing Everything With Amazing Speed
Directed by Dan Hurlin
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College
60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-on-Hudson
Through July 17
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