La MaMa Puppet Series 2013

  • Theater
  • Experimental
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Photograph: Nick Mangafas
Echo in Camera

La MaMa Puppet Series 2013: Echo in Camera. Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa E.T.C. (see Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Roman Paska/Dead Puppet. Running time: 1hr 5mins. No intermission.

La MaMa Puppet Series 2013: In brief

Innovation goes hand in glove with theater at this festival of new puppetry for grown-ups, which includes Kevin Augustine's The God Projekt as well as work by Roman Paska, Jeanette Yew, South Miller, Laura Bartolomei and Montreal's Les Sages Fous. The fest also includes local works geared toward children.

Theater review of Echo in Camera by Helen Shaw

I know it’s cruel to say, but designer-director Roman Paska’s Echo in Camera is loveliest in the moment before it starts. The piece (a marquee installment in this year’s La MaMa Puppet Series) manages to be most ravishing when its performers—exquisite, foot-high mannequins—lie in repose. A miniature woman reclines on a fainting couch with her arm thrown across her eyes; a weirdly menacing figure sits with a linen bag over its head; a red-headed man in baggy trousers slumps in a gondola. The spotlit creatures wait, infinitely patient, on waist-high black platforms; just looking at them seems to make our vision sharper.

It can’t all be so wonderful. There’s a show to do, a woolly-minded exploration of music and identity to conduct. Granted, in the hands of their chief manipulator, the world-class Paska, the doll-actors move beautifully; looming behind them in a top hat and dark glasses, he makes them seem delicate, even rueful, as they dance along their plinths. But he is also doing all their voices, and this (as well as his muddled text) violates the spell.

Paska is one of our foremost puppeteers, but he is assuredly not our foremost writer. He takes us through a kind of Orpheus-lite dream-plot, in which a musician named Tom (the redhead) goes seeking his missing bandmate in hell. We’re in a drug-induced haze: Both Tom and Paska get a shot in the ear from a giant hypodermic needle wielded by a pair of bowler-hatted (human) factotums. Tom forgets his mission, then fragments into several versions of himself, including a pint-size Beethoven who pops out of a violin-case-cum-coffin making dorky jokes about hearing loss. Gnomic titles appear on the projection screen, and all the puppets exchange wigs. This happens for a certain amount of time, then Paska’s persecutors tie his hands and bundle him away.

Object-theater work lends itself naturally to morbid fantasy, since we’re already wandering in the valley of the uncanny. Puppets have secretive little faces, and those of Paska’s troupe have been molded as precisely as death masks—so we’re doubly conscious of the eerie relationship between dolls and the unliving. Unfortunately, though, dream-dramaturgy can easily grow slack, and what with the injections (a kind of River Lethe?) and the visit to Hell, Paska abandons too many structural hooks. It seems as though the thing wants to have no text at all, to be a strange interplay among puppets, music and the projected images of waves. We need to be sunk further in mystery, trying to read stories onto the puppets’ grave, white silence. It’s a disappointment to find out that they’re just as banal as we are, once we can hear their voices.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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