Remember playing with dolls? Whether our memory is of last night or decades ago, whether we wore blue or pink as a tot, the activity was often our first exposure to character-based storytelling. Some young auteurs develop an arsenal of vocalized gun and bomb sounds, some a complex network of relationship dilemmas. Either way, the delight derives from the dolls' utter passivity, a tabula rasa invested with the unexpected play of our imaginations, taking on a life separate from our own.
Dolls take center stage in Puppets Revenge's Santa Fe premiere,
(Latin for "they loved each other"), which combines detail with humor in a playful, if uneven, encapsulation of the myth of Eros and Psyche. The mode of puppetry chosen for the production uses a Marilyn Monroe doll for Psyche and an Elvis doll for Eros, with all characters manually manipulated by fully visible puppeteers. At times, even with the puppeteers towering over their cast, the imagination willingly enters the world of the performance.
However, quite often, the audience is cast into the alienating role of merely watching. It's rare for children to watch other children play with dolls. As in some performances of improvisational music or pornography or John Bonham drum solos, the feeling steals in: The performers are having all the fun, the audience's amusement vicarious at best.
Two aspects of Puppets Revenge's production reinforce this deflating distance: a glaring lack of craft in execution and the extemporaneous, artless narration provided by Ron Dans (who, along with wife Laia Obregon-Dans, founded Puppet's Revenge) in between scenes. Ostensibly to provide time for set and costume changes, the narration has the effect of repeatedly breaking the spell of the performance.
The issue of craft in puppet theater is a thorny one. Puppetry's peculiar magic is constituted by the seamless artifice of its figures and the uninterrupted lack of intrusion of the puppeteer. As George Bernard Shaw said, "Wooden actors, though stiff and continually glaring at you with the same overcharged expression, yet move you as only the most experienced human actors can." (Whether or not this explains Harrison Ford's success is an open question.) When Ron Dans and Laia Obregon-Dans stay close to their well-imagined scenes, maintaining the magic atmosphere enclosed within their fit-up and seeming to lose themselves in play, the audience is able to go along. The humor and charm of the piece takes off during these passages, and Marilyn/Psyche and Elvis/Eros morph from plastic to powerful.
High points include the hapless Psyche put to the test by a vindictive Venus, jealous of her son Eros' Psyche-centered attentions. These scenes, including Psyche's visit to Hell to get the secret of beauty from Persephone, in which she encounters a Harley-riding demon with a penchant for human soup and a voice altered by a high-tech swazzle, provide both comic relief and a coherent center for the play.
Kudos to Ron Dans and Laia Obregon-Dans for dreaming up Puppets Revenge, as well as Teatre Petit, an intimate, 80-seat venue within El Museo Cultural. The whimsical vision of this collaborative couple brings fresh humor and wisdom to the sometimes overly earnest Santa Fe performing arts scene. Eros and Psyche have a child, of course: Pleasure. Welcome to Pleasure in the form of Puppets Revenge-witty, irreverent and original, no matter the kinks.