Why are puppets so much more emotionally convincing than human actors—especially when it comes to massive subjects like war? Rezo Gabriadze’s elegiac Battle of Stalingrad (presented by the Tbilisi Municipal Theatre Studio for three nights in the Lincoln Center Festival) raises—and answers—the question with its elegant and mournful evocation of one of history’s most brutal military confrontations.
Played on a desktop-sized stage by five puppeteers manipulating objects that range from a few inches to a couple of feet tall, the piece roams through Stalingrad, Berlin, Kiev, and Moscow between 1937 and 1943 in 14 scenes that glance off the decisive World War II battle rather than portray it directly. Indeed, the combat itself, which claimed as many as 1.3 million Soviet lives and 800,000 Germans, is declared unrepresentable: In the single scene depicting it, the stage is cleared, leaving a red light shining on a floor of sand. An upstage curtain drops to reveal the theater’s back wall as volleys of gunfire explode over the sound system.
For Gabriadze, who made Battle of Stalingrad while in exile from Georgia during its bloody civil war in the ’90s, the most significant events of the hostilities take place in miniature—in the individual lives torn apart, brutalized, cut short. A young man from Kazakhstan—a hand-sized cutout—writes a don’t-worry-about-me letter home from the front, even as he is carted, limp, off the field. A Jew in Kiev—a gangly, bearded marionette—describes electricity as an argument between amps and volts before his home is bombed into rubble. These characters are located subtly by strains of taped music—a plucked Eastern melody for the young soldier, a klezmer tune for the old Jew. Dialogue, too, is recorded, delivered in Russian with English titles projected like captions on the lower edge of the stage.
The piece focuses most intently on war’s disruption of love. In one especially powerful scene, a woman left alone mops her room: The puppeteer reaches into the stage space, removes her wedding band, and places it carefully on a dollhouse table standing in front of a baby’s crib. The hand wrings out a tiny rag in a tiny bucket and meticulously wipes it across the floor. Meanwhile, the Soviet News Agency reports that the Red Army is succeeding and “our casualties are insignificant.” In another scene, a floppy, red-haired gunner imagines the wedding of his beloved, Rosa, to another man. Like a Chagall floating bride, Rosa dances over his head under a chuppa with her husband-to-be while the gunner calls out to her in vain.
The Battle of Stalingrad‘s central and recurring love story follows a transport worker, Alyosha, and a circus performer, Natasha—both portrayed as horses. Bedraggled and broken down, Alyosha searches for Natasha, his head drooping to the ground, then arching toward her in yearning as she appears to him in a hoop suspended over the stage. By the time they catch up with each other, their love has eroded, but it is renewed in all its intensity as Natasha is hit in the battle and lies dying. Alyosha cradles her in his neck as she urges him, over schmaltzy violins, to “remember only the good moments: Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow . . . ”
How hokey, how unbearably sentimental such a scene would be if performed by actors. How naive and clichéd the war-is-hell premise would seem in a conventional play. But the puppet form not only allows for the dreamlike disjunctions of time and place—the feeling that like the war itself, we are dropping in randomly on locations the violence has ravaged—it also brings enormous occurrences down to contemplative size. The compactness and simplicity distill emotion into its essence, and the two-dimensionality creates surprising depth.
The Battle of Stalingrad begins and ends with self-burials. At the opening, a bulbous-headed stick figure pokes up out of the sand, finds a tattered flag, a red star, a helmet, and a cross. He makes himself a grave marker out of these remnants and crawls back under. At the close, an ant—who has earlier searched for some sugar for her dying daughter—laments the lack of attention her species has garnered: “They’ve counted everything. How many guns they’ve lost, how many people they’ve lost. But has anybody counted us ants? Whoever walked this earth more gently than we?” She burrows helplessly into the sand, leaving behind a burning question that only a puppet could have the audacity—and authenticity—to ask.