Taking pains since it was my first puppet show and all, I made it to The Public Theater to catch Compulsion in uncharacteristically timely fashion and got to spend a few minutes admiring the set. Dominating the stage were perhaps a dozen marionettes strung from the catwalks, looking maybe a little morbidly gallows-esque. A recurring theme in the conversations I’ve had about puppets is the human tendency to project human characteristics onto these diminutive figures, and seeing so many of them motionless and dangling from the ceiling conjured an image of mass execution that, now that I’m thinking about it, was quite appropriate for the theme of the play.
So yes, the theme of the play was one man’s obsession (‘compulsion,’ if you will) to produce a stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank in post-WW2 America. Anne, it turned out, was represented by a marionette the size and appearance of a small child, and the opening scene immediately showcased the talents of the black-clad trio of puppeteers operating silently in the catwalks above. Anne sat at the edge of the table, pencil in wooden hand, pantomiming the act of writing lines left-to-right, left-to-right in perfect succession as the pencil twitched up-and-down to convey her strokes. It was strikingly well done, especially considering the 20ish feet separating the puppet from her human operators. Shortly after, a voice began reading the words she was ‘writing,’ presumably quotes from The Diary.
Shortly thereafter, the protagonist and titular Compulsive entered, played by this guy I definitely knew from somewhere, who was he? damnit (my roommates, incredulous with outrage at my ignorance, later identified him as Mandy Patinkin), who’s characterization of an American Jew deeply affected by the very recent Holocaust was spot-on in that theatrical, larger-than-life reflecting-life sort of way. Our seats were pretty great, so the painstaking attention to the details of the puppets and furrows in actors’ faces were clear as crystal.
The play, with its sevenish recurring human-depicted characters, only has three human actors. While Mandy P. was invariably the emotionally unstable Sid Silver, every other male part was played by one other actor, and both Sid’s wife and an up-and-coming business-lady were played by the same actress. The effect was really cool, making Sid’s world seem almost claustrophobically small and fitting well with his borderline delusions of grandeur w/r/t this Anne Frank play he insists he’s done an infinitely superior job of writing than the one which met widespread distribution.
The play departed from my expectations in two major ways: the marionette style of puppetry and the fact that the majority of scenes were sans-puppets. I guess I had by default anticipated the same style of puppetry featured in Puppet (bunraku), where black-clad (as ever) puppeteers manipulate their charges directly rather than via strings at a distance. The challenges of the marionette style are pretty obvious, what with strings that can become entangled and the slightest jostle getting magnified down on the stage, but I don’t think I’ve encountered enough of either style (or other yet-hypothetical ones) to go playing favorites yet. Suffice it to say, subtle motions (feet dangling off the edge of a bed, kicking, or gesticulations during speech) are both achievable and quite impressive with a puppet on strings. And while there were fewer scenes featuring puppets than I anticipated, they were the most haunting – the most unsettling scene in the play wound up being one where Anne appeared to Sid’s wife while the two of them were in bed, with the wife basically pleading with Anne to leave them alone in what (I think) was the only time the ghostly Ms. Frank appeared to anyone besides Sid.
After the show, David introduced me to one of the puppeteers, Eric Wright (who appears prominently in Puppet), who gave me some interesting behind-the-scenes type insight into the creative process. Like, remember those dozen eerily-still puppets from the beginning of the play? Only four or five of them actually got used, which turned out to be because they cut down on the number of puppetry scenes in the show as it continued its apparently unusually long tour. I thought this was fascinating, since plays always seem like pretty static things to me, with perhaps a minor detail here or there changing with each iteration but not much more. Eric said that was one of the advantages to having such a long tour; they were able to hone their vision of the show to an unusual degree. Incidentally, I’ve been invited to tour a puppet-making studio in the Lower East Side, so anticipate further Homunculus-behind-the-scenes goodness some time in the nearish future.
Something David said to me is I think worth repeating: “puppets don’t make good microphones.” For all its delicate puppetry, some of the magic of the writing scene that opened the play was broken when the voice-over began reading Anne’s words. As the play proceeded, the actors on stage increasingly spoke for the puppets, with the speaking actors clearly visible behind the little humanoid figures. This turned out to be distracting – which is kind of funny, since I expected to be distracted instead by the puppeteers in the catwalks. In reality, they were silent and stealthy as large predatory cats on the prowl, and for the majority of the time I forgot the puppeteers were there at all. A puppet has a certain kind of stage presence, and while it can be mixed with human actors very effectively, giving puppets vocalizations, and especially showing the people doing the vocalizing, can take something away from the effect.
Still, the incorporation of the puppets and nuanced puppeteering throughout Compulsion were impressive and quite distinct from the central position puppets played in Disfarmer (the subject of Puppet). Instead, puppets in Compulsion served to inject a surreal quality into key emotional scenes – usually the puppets arose when Sid was especially unhinged or waxing Anne Frank philosophical, like embodiments of his mania. Lightning cracked and Sid’s wife was transformed into a fragile and damp-looking puppet standing in the rain outside the door to their home. A likeness of the The Man character with a knife in its back was flung onto a table in front of the human version to pretty hilarious effect. I look forward to seeing how different ratios of puppet/human acting work out as I continue my exploration of the NYC puppet scene.