The Puppet's The Thing 

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 and Othello.

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?

Vit Horejs: 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.

How did you get started in puppet theater, and why did you decide to work with marionettes instead of puppets?

That's just my background. It comes from the tradition of marionette theater in Czechoslovakia,. I played with a toy marionette theater when I was a child, and a lot of Czech children do, working with a little proscenium and these little characters, developing your own stories. I actually worked in my mother's marionette theater.

Why is it so common in your culture?

It just is, I don't really know. I think it comes from the tradition of the itinerant puppeteers would reach villages where theater was not economically feasible. So they'd bring these little shows and it would get passed down through the generations, the same puppeteer families traveling the country. For some reason the tradition survived in Czechoslovakia more than anywhere else. In the 50s there was a push against it, as the communist government refused to renew the licenses of many of these families and there was a big push to copy the Soviet style of rod puppets, to go back to this original style of puppet theater. In the 60s there was a bit of a renaissance as the rules were lightened a little bit and other styles were allowed to resume.

Twelfth Night at La Mama

How did you decide what sorts of marionettes to work with—there are many options, right?

I chose to work with what I knew best, but there are many different kinds. There are the rod puppets, which are controlled only from below. And while that might seem less expressive, I've been surprised the more I've seen them used that they have their own sort of poetry. Then there are those with a rod below and strings on their arms and legs. A lot of performers in America now have marionettes that have movable jaws—and it would seem as if that gives you more to work with, but I’ve found that they are not nearly as expressive. It's surprising, to hear people after a show say they saw an expression change on one of our marionettes. Of course nothing changed, but this allows the imagination to spring to life.

Is this an annual puppet festival? How have the audiences changed over time? Are they more resistant to something like this? More interested in giving something new a try?

It's a bi-annual event, and we have to be with the festival every year. When I first proposed this idea to Ellen Stewart she was kind of hesitant, wondering who was going to see puppet theater, but over the years she's gotten very much into it. She's even started using puppets in some of her own productions. I think there's a renaissance of puppetry in general because people are open to the artistic possibilities. You look at muppets who can open their mouths and even move their eyes and they seem more sophisticated, but with marionettes there is far more that's being left to the imagination, and sometimes you can do more with that as a result. We've even had shows where we used everyday objects as puppets—things like vacuum cleaners or suitcases, and you'd be surprised how much you can even do with that.

Is it hard for you to sit through a regular theater production now—with so much less being left to the imagination? Is it boring for you, to just see a few humans walking around a stage?

I can hardly imagine doing a play any more without puppets. There are exquisite plays out there that I love, but I've really gotten used to the possibilities of puppet theater and taking things to those difference levels that add layers to the text. And so yes, it feels like something's missing when all of that isn't there; I have a hard time imagining doing anything else for an audience.

(photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

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