The works of William Shakespeare are a staple of the theater—just as are the various reimaginings of his work which arrive like clockwork to the stages of New York City. Any actor or director of significance has taken a crack at reinterpreting the Bard; this autumn alone, we've ushered in new takes on Hamlet
But few Shakespearean reinventions can match the creativity or spontaneity on display at the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater
's production of Twelfth Night
(through November 29), part of La Mama's "Puppet Series 3
." This three-tea-tray production, featuring 16 eight-inch marionettes and three live actors, has been conceived, adapted and directed by Vit Horejs. He spoke with The L Magazine
about what it takes to rethink Shakespeare at the two-foot level, and why he prefers marionettes to the wacky world of muppets.
The L: What ever made you think Twelfth Night could work as puppet theater—how do you even begin to rework Shakespeare at such a small scale?
It's been in the works for some time, actually. We did Hamlet
a while back, and when I was working with another company we did Richard III
. There's some extensive editing involved, and in some ways our works become a summary of the larger play. When we did Hamlet
, it was only 1 hour and 37 minutes long. So it counts on people already knowing the play a little bit, but even though it's for adults we had people bring kids to Hamlet
and it still worked. They could sit through it and got something out of it. Many people think puppets are for kids, but what we're trying to show with things like Shakespeare is that you can get a whole lot more out of it.
But it can't be easy, to edit Shakespeare.
The biggest challenge here is doing a Shakespeare production with only 3 people. We have 16 marionettes but only three live performers. So sometimes one person is doing a scene where he's two different characters, and then in another moment he's three different characters. It's quite challenging, to keep it all straight, but ironically it's these different levels and layers that actually make it more enriching in a way.
Enriching in a way different than "regular" theater?
There's a mixture of things that makes puppet theater far more engaging. When you have a live performance with marionettes, it allows for this whole array of different levels of interaction. You have the interaction from puppet to puppet, from the puppet to the puppeteer, and then between the puppeteers. There are even short moments when the action is transmitted to the puppeteers, and you find yourself going back and forth. So there's three levels of performance going on at once.
But does that ever get distracting? For anyone who's never seen a full-length puppet performance, I imagine this sounds pretty out there. Does this limited cast take away from something like Twelfth Night?
It actually enhances Twelfth Night
. There are moments where you're surprised by how well it works. The story has this theme of confused identities, and there are some great moments when you're confused in our play as to who is performing—is it the puppet or the puppeteer who's making the choices. It also helps with casting. Its much easier to have one puppeteer be both Belch and Sebastian, and there are moments when both are on stage at the same time and the same puppeteer is holding both and it works right into the themes of the story.
And beyond Shakespeare, puppets often can bring more to a piece. It's true that they can't do some things that live people can do, but they can also do some things that live people can't do. They can express themselves in different ways, jump in the air and then hold that position for just a second and express a sense of exuberance. Puppets can express a state of mind in ways that live person couldn't, which can really draw in an audience.