Theater archives

Lending a Helping Handke


Whoever said puppets don’t have souls? One look into the bulging, moony eyes of Todd, the pint-size star of the Elementals’ Bunkbed Commandos at Dance Theatre Workshop, and even the most atheistic of theatergoers may be forced to rethink their position. Personally, I’ve only seen scant evidence of an inner life (never mind a spiritual one) in any of Jim Henson’s army of plush mongrels. Sure Kermit has had his haunting moments, but take a peek inside Miss Piggy and all you’ll find are balls of flammable stuffing. Perhaps the difference with the Elementals is that they endow their cast with the capacity to dream. Or maybe it’s just that, like their human counterparts, these inanimate characters know they don’t have unlimited time, and therefore can’t help burrowing deep within themselves to wonder what it’s all about.

Bedtime is when young Todd’s elaborate fantasy life swings into action. Woken by frightening nocturnal creatures, he and his catlike orange teddy bear transform themselves into Bunkbed Commando and Chuck Bob, a bona fide superhero and his ingenious animal side kick, whose joint mission is to keep the night safe from dream intruders. Not only are irrational fears spreading throughout the populace, but advertising jingles for brown gum and fuzzy magnets are being broadcast directly into people’s brains. Bunkbed’s campaign against these destructive forces leads him into battle against a vivid array of villains, including a “germ-o-phobic” psychopath with zero tolerance for spitting old men and a mad neuroscientist who just might be Todd’s mother.

That Todd likes to pretend that his brother Rod is still alive is just one of the reasons he’s so protective of other people’s fantasy lives. In truth, he has a hard time differentiating between imagination and reality—it’s never clear where his dreams end and his waking world begins. The disorienting silliness of the plot sometimes makes this more confusing than need be. Despite the thematic richness of their show, the Elementals (James Godwin, Tim Lagasse, Jim Napolitano, John Pavlik, and director Leigh Secrest) demonstrate a far defter touch in their inventive moonlit staging than in their storytelling, which occasionally lapses into pure goofiness, culminating in—believe it or not—an entrancing if dramatically dodgy celebration of the song “Dream Weaver.”

Not that the creative team doesn’t find ample opportunity for poking fun at their own miscues. The one or two “puppet emergencies” involving an item of clothing that won’t stay on or an unwieldy prop are easily incorporated into their running banter with the audience. This healthy relish for self-irony gives rise to all sorts of metatheatrical shenanigans, ranging from puppets manipulating other puppets to jokes about the shtick of the dummy trade. Such a jaunty approach combined with the Santa’s workshop–like cleverness breaks down any resistance adults might have in returning to a place of childhood wonder and innocence.

— How you feel standing before, say, a geometric composition by the abstract painter Piet Mondrian may give some indication of your tolerance for the Austrian-born playwright Peter Handke. Both artists rigorously interrogate the fundamental definitions of their respective aesthetic forms. While the philosophical implications of their work are easy enough to grasp, the subtleties of texture and light are somewhat more challenging to appreciate. The ideas be hind Offending the Audience—Handke’s paradigmatic early play in which four actors reel off a litany of what their audience is not going to experience—may still make for provocative discussion, but it takes a rarefied sensibility to want to sit through it twice.

All credit then to Mad Dog’s New York premiere of Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other at Five Myles in Brooklyn, a production I would gladly attend multiple times. The text, translated by Gitta Honegger, consists exclusively of stage directions, some of which are played aloud on tape, though none are illustrated in a literal-minded fashion. An ensemble of 10 barefoot actors traipses in and out of a playing area marked off by tape, as a soundtrack mixes street noise and bird sounds with jazz and Latin music. “One who could be anyone passes another who could be anyone,” announces an unseen voice, underscoring the romantically charged possibility of the title. It’s not only prospective lovers who are to-ing and fro-ing, but also refugees, shoppers, joggers, pregnant women, merchants, even a guy on a skateboard.

While all this coming and going may seem to make for singularly unpromising dramatic material, in the hands of director Phil Soltanoff (who choreographed along with Debra Fernandez) the work attains the kind of sensual suggestiveness of modern dance. The physically eloquent cast moves with a determined vigor, their eyes fixed to aerial points beyond them and only occasionally deigning to “cruise” their fellow travelers. Solitary yet inextricably linked, they shift in gracefully austere patterns that have a Mondrian-like sense of beauty. If you look long enough you might just find unexpected depth in the glistening shallows.