There are directors who make theater, and then there are artists who create worlds of their own imagination. In these intimate spaces of the mind, a meticulously crafted aesthetic conveys ideas whose full contours are not readily grasped but promise immense rewards to the curious and adventurous. Robert Wilson is one of the best known of this breed. Another is Roman Paska, a puppeteer of exquisite skill and secretive vision whose latest piece, the enigmatic Echo in Camera, was the highlight of the La MaMa Puppet Series that ended last week.
The festival receives support from the Jim Henson Foundation, but Paska’s work falls about as far from the Muppets as you could ever get (though it was developed at both Wilson’s Watermill Center and the Henson Carriage House). Dream-like in its mood, almost ritualistic in its movements, this “mental drama” in Paska’s own words, journeys deep into the unconscious where shadows and demons are all the more frightening for being reflections of the self.
Paska is based in New York but may be better known in France, where he was the director of the prestigious International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mezières. He is also the founder of Dead Puppet, a company which explicitly plays on the relationship between the animate and the inanimate and their interdependence for expression. In the world of puppetry, Paska is a zen master. And like the expressions of all masters, there is wisdom behind the simplest of appearances. Even the title of this piece requires some deconstructing for interpreting what takes place on stage. The “Echo” part is easy, referring to the double nature of the story, which involves twins or a split personality or a man’s struggle with his identity among complimentary and contradictory selves. “In Camera” is at first less obvious here: a legal term meaning “in chambers”, or in the privacy of a judge’s quarters.
The journey of the neatly suited puppet named Tom in search of his punk-rock double, sends him leaping across bare tables laid out in rows across the empty, dark stage. A handbell is rung to signal each change of setting or new narrative thread as these twins or one of the three other characters in the story, including a menacing black-masked figure from Commedia dell’Arte, is laid down and a companion who was left waiting on another table suddenly springs to life. Sometimes they are subjected to experiments on their bodies and minds, administered by Paska and his two bowler-hatted collaborators. The three men may be the necessary handlers of these wooden, string-less marionettes, but their measured actions, solemnity and power over their creations also give them a magisterial (and sinister) air.
More hints are provided by the Orpheus myth, which Paska has used to create a story within a story. Tom is a musician looking for his other self, whose music, we are told, has become an international sensation. His journey leads him to many strange places, where he meets devils (those two collaborators, again), his wife, and even Beethoven. He will find his Mohawk-sporting double (wearing a leather jacket, grey hoodie and Scottish kilt to round out his eclectic dress) but their meeting has deadly consequences. Or so it seems. Images of waves roll across a back screen, contributing to the themes of voyage and discovery, perhaps leading Tom across the River Styx. These images are punctuated by cryptic phrases that are projected on the screen, adding yet more elliptical hints: “VOLUME CONTROL”, “INFLUENCE MACHINES”…
We might not be sure where we are, but as if under the spell of Orpheus’ music, we are charmed by these endearing creatures whose fragility and human searchings resonate deeply. The finely wrought, jointed puppets are capable of great expression with their limbs and appear all the more human for the gentle attention they receive from their three handlers, who rock them tenderly when they fly them from one table to another. Paska’s meta-narration reads as a post-modern commentary on his experiments and we understand why he describes his art of puppetry as “visual poetry”.
Echo in Camera may speak more to our subconscious than to our conscious selves, leaving us feeling at times a bit like Tom, who is finally speared by a devil’s pitchfork and spirited unceremoniously away. But these haunting images hold us powerfully, leaving much matter for our own mental journeys and a note of humor too. Tom floats off finally in a boat across those waves under the final phrase: “DEAD PUPPET REMAINS.”