“The Return of Ulysses”
Pacific Operaworks and Handspring Puppet Company
Project Artaud Theater
San Francisco, CA
March 24, 2009
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano, 2009
Puppets have a long tradition in dance whether they partner live performers in popular and ritual celebrations around the globe or are impersonated in ballets such “Coppelia,” The Nutcracker,” “Petrouchka”, “La boutique fantasque” and its precursor “Die Puppenfee” And who can forget the blow-up doll in DV8 Physical Theater’s “Enter Achilles?” The tension between the inanimate and the live body is one that seems to fascinate universally. A performance by Seattle’s Pacific Operaworks and Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company of Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” brought the topic to mind again, particularly as it relates to Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater.” The Monteverdi opera was presented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with an exhibition of the oeuvre of South African artist William Kentridge who directed and designed the production.
In the essay Kleist—or his alter ego, a dancer—argues that puppets move with a grace denied to the human dancer because they are not subject to the laws of gravity, and they lack self-awareness. The primary reason why this “Ulysses” became such an enchanting and deeply moving experience was because it so ingeniously employed puppets for which live singers—dressed in neutral contemporary clothes—provided the voices. When a human performer steps into a character—whether it’s done by a dancer, actor or singer—we always see the double vision of the person and persona. There is no person inside a puppet so the character comes across as unmediated and communicates in a direct and pure form that is impossible to achieve in any other way.
In “Ulysses” each slightly smaller than life-size puppet was manipulated by a puppeteer and the singer who was assigned to the part. Beautifully carved with distinct features, Penelope looked both stern and wan; Ulysses was the sturdy but worn warrior; and the bald skinny Shepherd had cabbage leaf ears. In their gift-bringing mode the three foppish suitors, garbed in Versailles-style refinery, called up comic versions of the Nativity’s Three Kings. At first these wood and cloth creatures looked one-dimensional, as close to a blank canvass as you can get. It was up to the puppeteers to put flesh and bones to them so that they came alive to us. And they did so magnificently. Tiny heads turn and incline; arms that reach just so. Penelope angrily tears at the thread to undo her weavings. The suitors snake around each other. Young Telemachus is full of gravity-defying energy.
The fact that each puppet had a second manipulator in the person of the singer, heightened not only the singer’s ability to give physical expression to the music but also increased the master puppeteer’s sensitivity to the singer’s individual phrasing and the trajectory and nuances of the Monteverdi. It called for and received an exquisite collaboration between singer and puppeteer. Kleist’s respondent maintained that a good puppeteer had to put himself into the puppet’s center of gravity—mainly the spine—and being a dancer, therefore, would be helpful. Watching the focussed expression with which these puppet masters brought about the tiniest shifts in vulnerability or grand emotions, one couldn’t help but see that they too were dancing.
Kentridge’s conceit placed the story into a contemporary hospital room in which a dyeing Ulysses relives his home-coming. He remains on stage—a semi-circle above and behind which the orchestra plays and some of the action takes place-throughout. One puppeteer keeps him breathing—slowly and irregularly. When Ulysses the Traveler, who had arisen from the bed as an identical puppet, despairs at the idea of Penelope's possible faithlessness, the Ulysses figure in the bed becomes highly agitated and tries to get up. So the puppeteer comforts him by putting his hand on the old man’s shoulders. It is one of the Opera’s most touching moments.
Live performers don’t fly and they don’t change size. But Penelope becomes very tall as she floats towards the suitors with the bow. Telemachus eagerly flies across the skies to his father’s bed. Ulyssses and the Shepherd march, saunter and finally take to the air carried along by their desire to return home. No live performers could have given such pure expression to the heightened intensity of those moments.
In addition to directing the show, Kentridge also created a panoply of video images which suggested both an outer reality—land- and cityscapes, both contemporary and ancient--and an inside view of the body in the form of medical images, drawn both from modern science and old textbooks. The latter worked in the sense that they combined a sense of the body as an entity under stress and doomed to decay. They reinforced some of Monteverdi’s fatalism as expressed in the prologue. But too often the visual analogies were obvious and contributed little to our better understanding. However, where the visuals suggested time and space traversed, i.e. from ancient ruins to contemporary office in few seconds, they expanded Ulysses’ journey into the mythic.
Extraordinary as the Handspring Puppet Company’s contribution was to this “Ulysses”, it must be remembered at its heart still beat the humor, poignancy and aching beauty of Monteverdi’s score and the contribution of the musicians and singers who brought it to life. The singers were Ross Hauck (Ulysses), Laura Pudwell (Penelope), Cyndia Sieden (Love and Athena), Sarah Mattox (Fate and Melanto), Jasonc McStoots (Zeus and Eumaeus), Douglas Williams (Time, Neptune and Antinoo), James L. Brown (Pisandro) and Zachary Wilder (Telemachus and Anfinomo). Stephen Stubbs conducted the small baroque instrument orchestra from his seat behind the chitarrone.
“The Return of Ulysses”
Photo: Aimee Friberg Photography, courtesy SFMOMA