The Schmooze

Magic and Wonder at the International Festival of Puppet Theater

Patricia O’Donovan in ‘A Touch of Light.’ Photo by Ayelet Dekel.

Crossposted from Midnight East

Puppetry is one of the most radical forms of theater I have seen in Israel in recent years. Without fanfare, often working with the simplest materials, puppet artists vanquish the assumptions of popular theater and of “what works.” They create theatrical worlds — beautiful, funny, subversive and sometimes all three at once — imbued with a sense of wonder that speaks to audiences of all ages.

The International Festival of Puppet Theater took place in Jerusalem last week from August 14 to 19. The festival included 38 different productions, both Israeli and international. Had there been “world enough and time” I would have been delighted to see more. The selection of productions I did see revealed different approaches in the use of the stage and materials, yet all the shows had one trait in common: The audiences were spellbound.

From the 4-year-olds and their parents in the intimate setting of the Train Theater in the Koret Liberty Bell Park (Gan HaPa’amon) to the artsy crowd that gathered for the late-night adults only performance, and the 60-strong multi-age group that wandered through the picturesque passages of the Yemin Moshe neighborhood, viewers were held in rapt attention.

My journey began on the first day of the festival at the Train Theater, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, with “Far Over the Sea,” directed by Alina Ashbel. The set recreated a Tel Aviv street scene using recycled materials. The sign saying “Bialik Street” let us know where we were, geographically and conceptually. Both the look and text of this piece reflected a very contemporary sensibility, starting with Bialik who, while a founding pillar of the Israeli literary canon, has become less of a writer whose works are actually read than a cultural marker and sign post.

Shahar Marom in ‘Far Over the Sea.’ Photo by Ayelet Dekel.

At the beginning of the performance, Shahar Marom greeted the audience from the set, explaining that it was constructed from discarded objects he had found on the streets. He then announced: “Now I am going to enter my show.” He began by pushing a cart on the tiny stage, calling out “cupboards, drawers, old refrigerators,” like the ubiquitous alte zakhen (old stuff) peddlars who can still be sighted even in the urban chaos of Tel Aviv.

Giving the Hebrew words Bialik’s Ashkenazic intonation, Marom gently led the audience on a search for the writer’s poems, acknowledging the distance between Bialik’s Hebrew and our everyday speech with explanations woven into the fabric of the story. Reviving the children’s poems of yesterday with loving attention, and creating endearing creatures from an unlikely collection of objects including rotary telephones and hot water bottles, “Far Over the Sea,” invited us to reflect on what we choose to discard.

“Rose-Bud,” by Amalia Hoffman and Naomi Yoeli, was a confection taken from the enchanted realm of bedtime stories, paper dolls and pop-up books. Retelling the tale of a beloved daughter of a king and queen and an uninvited fairy’s revenge, “Rose-Bud” connected the tale to the nighttime rituals of three sisters who love drawing, stories and fairies. From the rather helpless queen who cries big blue paper tears, to the wickedly amusing fairy and the gallant prince, there was a mix of humor, music and magic with a large, illustrated book at the center. Hoffman’s delicate drawings came to life in Yoeli’s hands, and the traditional storytelling was enhanced by consultations with the audience, who proved to be eager participants.

Naomi Yoeli in ‘Rose-Bud.’ Photo by Eldad Maestro.

Employing similar materials — a book with pop-up art and paper-doll like figures and masks — Yael Rasooly created an entirely different effect in “Paper Cut,” a puppet show with a retro touch that was most definitely for mature audiences. “Paper Cut” harkened back to the golden days of black and white cinema fantasies, when men were men and women were… secretaries, submissive second wives, and those who live to serve.

Rasooly was both actress and puppeteer, setting the scene with her pre-show. Buttoned up and decked out in a checked jacket, obligatory bun and black plastic framed glasses, she was already on the job, making sure her pencils were all perfectly sharp, with only her red lipstick to hint at the fires that burn within. It was a fun frolic, especially for film buffs. Rasooly took the fantasy all the way on an imaginative tour that stopped at all the iconic vintage cinema scenes before taking a detour to its somewhat surprising dénouement.

Yael Rasooly in ‘Paper Cut.’ Photo by Ayelet Dekel.

Patricia O’Donovan’s “A Touch of Light” was a moving work that pierced the heart. A candle glowing in the darkness illuminated shadow puppets, drawings, and figures made of paper, as O’Donovan’s artistry imbued the story of Louis Braille with playful laughter, the pleasure that can be found in books, and the joy of insight. Without attempting to deny the pain and frustration of losing his eyesight, Braille’s story was told using simple words and creative methods.

O’Donovan conveyed complex concepts such as echolocation in a way that even the youngest audience members could grasp. As the young Louis sits in the village square, each person that passes is accompanied by a different sound. Without saying a word, O’Donovan has explained that Louis knows the world around him through sound. Ultimately, however, it was the visual brilliance of this work that took my breath away, especially in a pivotal scene that translates Louis’s moment of epiphany into visual expression, creating onstage magic that makes the spirit soar.

Jack Shvili and Avraham Cohen in ‘The Dream Trackers.’ Photo by Ayelet Dekel.

“The Dream Trackers” was at once the most ephemeral and the most physical of the shows I saw. Part of the Public Works project of the Train Theater, it was staged in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. In the production, up to 60 people could sign up for a course taught by two eminent dream trackers, Jack Shvili and Avraham Cohen, both students of the famous Professor Pyjama. While I cannot reveal the secrets of the trade, the experience not only enchanted the participants (ranging in age from about 3 to 63), but attracted people passing by who stopped to listen, drawn into the fantasy created through words, song, movement and creative props. “What is a dream without a dreamer?” sang the two dream trackers, suggesting the most radical statement of all: Magic is in us and all around us, waiting to be found.

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Magic and Wonder at the International Festival of Puppet Theater

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