Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The Soldier's Tale"

Photo by David Allen
By Igor Stravinsky & C.F. Ramuz
Directed by Muriel Maffre & Tom Ross
Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, CA
November 17, 2011

"The Soldier's Tale" follows one man's post-war experience as he attempts to deal with change, define his existence, confront evil temptation and discover contentment.  While he journeys through these various seasons, he encounters the devil, played by Joan Mankin, who complicates his decision-making processes at every turn.  In Aurora Theatre's version, the soldier appears in the form of a three-foot tall puppet, physically expressed by puppeteer Muriel Maffre and vocally by L. Peter Callender.  Generally, I am not a fan of puppetry used as a theatrical tool in performance, but in "The Soldier's Tale", it was a rousing success.

At times, Maffre and the soldier puppet were a single entity, almost in a pas de deux, the two becoming one to articulate gestures and create shapes in space.  The emotions and the movement emerged from a single impulse and then radiated outward.  In an early scene, the soldier learns that his true love has moved on with her life while he was away.  In despair, the puppet cradled his broken heart as Maffre gently picked him up off the ground.  The pure power of that quiet moment was met by the audience's overwhelmed silence - you could literally hear a pin drop in the room.  The integration, while astoundingly good, was only one part of their magical duet - the puppetry in "The Soldier's Tale" was really a multi-level endeavor.  Yes, Maffre and the puppet were one character, but in addition, you could also see that they became extensions of each other, engaging in a two-way conversation.  The fact that Maffre is a dancer clearly made a huge impact on the quality and clarity of the puppetry; she understands the human body, its physical expressiveness and its ability to transmit a narrative.

From a purely visually perspective, the soldier puppet was equally humanistic and anonymous.  Combining the excellence of the puppetry with the puppet's design, the soldier really became human throughout the course of the show.  At the same time, the generality of the puppet's features created a level of anonymity.  This creature had an anyone/everyone quality, making the work very easy to relate to. 

Toward the end of the piece, Maffre morphs into the daughter of the King, a woman who becomes the object of the soldier's affection and love. In a solo that she dances after her character recovers from an illness, the audience finally experiences the full splendor of Maffre's statuesque frame.  Up until that point, she spent the majority of her stage time stooped over manipulating the puppet.  Now she was free to extend, to jump, to rise and that freedom was very present in the mid-length divertissement (which Maffre also choreographed).  While it was thrilling to see this amazing dancer moving with such beautiful abandon, the variation was a little busy.  The Aurora Theatre space is fantastic, but small, and thus, any choreography needs to pay attention to that constraint.  In a restricted space, expansive movement and constant motion can come across feeling a little claustrophobic.

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