Show #2: Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man

My second show, Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man, featured an impressive cross-section of puppetry forms. Don Cristóbal was one of those play-within-a-play type deals, where the titular Don goes from a child-sized bunraku-style puppet in the main play to an infant-sized hand-puppet in the inner play, which was a variant of those old slapstick Punch and Judy shows so popular with the medieval set. In the outer play, however, the ne’er-do-well hero puppet finds himself in complicated love with his Judy-surrogate costar. The complication being that Don is a puppet, which turns out to be something of a deal-breaker for her and turns the play into something of a bizarre and violent take on a Pinocchio story.

Don Cristóbal started with a visually-striking shadow-puppetry scene, where a scrim was lowered before the stage and the actors filed around behind it – the gaudy jester-type costumes and stilted movements made it very difficult to distinguish human from humanoid figures, and I found myself wondering just how many puppets were involved. I overestimated, as there was only the one (Don Cristóbal) in the main story, but it was interesting that the line between puppet and man became so blurry with only the colorless, 2D information of shadows available.

Speaking of the Billy-Club Man, this was one gnarly-looking little puppet – bent at the shoulders with his face twisted into a lopsided sneer, which worked quite effectively with the crotchety, Spanish-accented voice provided by his lead puppeteer. The puppeteer, incidentally, was fantastic, easily outshining the other actors with his excellent comedic timing and a knack for keeping the audience’s attention on his puppet charge. Puppets naturally draw attention, but I think a mark of good puppeteering is maximizing that effect. The coolest thing about this particular puppet’s appearance was his asymmetry, which not only gave him an endearing but decidedly ugly mug, but allowed for an impressive range of ‘facial expression,’ since the one side of his face was more cruel-looking while the other was more pitiable. As discussed in Puppet, people will project all kinds of emotion onto the by-definition lifeless face of a puppet, so giving the puppet a distribution of possible expressions naturally facilitates the process.

While it started simply enough, Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man got decidedly weirder and more dream-like as it progressed. The freakiest part was this slowly-moving procession of tall, masked, black-veiled beings circling the stage, which it took me a moment to realize were actors holding intricately carved masks of very, very old and pale people in one hand held high above their heads and bobbing them around, using their wrists and arms as the neck – everything else about their appearance was cloaked behind a mostly-opaque black veil. This was downright spooky.

Also, at the end Don Cristóbal winds up at the forest home of some kind of puppet-maker, who has whittled him a new heart because his old one decayed into sawdust? Or something? This may have been due to Don’s ladylove’s rejection of his plan to fly to the moon together, which, I mean, it’s hard to blame her but he takes it pretty hard. Incidentally, there’s this recurring theme of Don Cristóbal waxing poetical at the moon, which plays host to an ever-changing array of shadow-puppets and was one of my favorite aspects of the play – the projected shadows ranged from humorous and none-too-vague sexual imagery to very subtle, emotionally stirring backdrop for the play. In fact, the only thing for which I’d knock Don Cristóbal was the couple of scenes where Don ‘flew’ over to a ledge to pine toward said moon. David Soll once told me (I think he was quoting someone) that ‘puppets shouldn’t fly,’ which says a lot in a few words, I think. The job of these figures is to be a receptacle for our projected emotions and suspended disbeliefs, and while it’s cool to have them do things that human actors can’t do, altogether defying gravity doesn’t seem like the right way to go about it. The Anne Frank puppet from Compulsion had a flight scene too, and it too rubbed me a little the wrong way.

Overall, though, Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man was excellent, particularly for its integration of so many distinct forms of puppetry in ways that emphasized the strengths of each, and it was funny and touching to boot.

June 28, 2011

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