“Suddenly, a knock at the door…” – that familiar phrase prompting an advance in narrative action, in PuppetCinema’s remarkable multi-media ensemble piece prompts a series of stories, stories about stories, about the need for stories, stories about the human condition, and the impossible yearning to tell stories about the human condition when the social and political insists on intruding, or render the human condition unbearable to contemplate. If the words “multi-media” and “metatheatrical” conjure images of self-consciously cerebral posturing, rest assured. Suddenly is nothing if not tender and sincere.
The stage is simply the bare black space of BAM’s Fisher Theater, filled with the props, mini stage sets (or film sets?), cameras and other items used by the company, with a screen at the back upon which are projected the filmed portions, the intertitles, and the English subtitles. The company are dressed in basic blacks. Our principal narrator, a writer, begins to tell of sitting alone in “the heap of rubble that was once his room, his life,” when “suddenly, there is a knock at the door. Three strangers—a Swede, a Moroccan, and a woman disguised as a pizza delivery person (“half-pineapple, half-anchovy”—a nice touch)—literally hold him at gunpoint, desperately demanding stories. Action and narration meld, with the performers providing dialogue and narration, and sharing the visual action with the skillfully manipulated puppets (or part-puppets—several are legs only). Early on, the writer hands off the next piece of dialogue to one of his would be aggressors and the collaborative storytelling is set in motion. Later, this approach is given a bittersweet comedic twist in the continued stretching of improv’s “yes, and…” rule (the idea that you can never reject an idea from an improvisation partner and instead must add to it); the narrator-actors insistently scramble to restore a happy ending, while the writer, equally insistently, pushes the story to its sad conclusion. The battle eloquently evokes the competing needs for stories to offer happy escape and a realistic reflection of life’s cruelties.
Storytelling has an important place in Israeli traditions. Aside from this, however, (and, of course, from being performed in Hebrew), the company’s Israeli origins are only tangentially apparent in our own awareness that the urgent need for stories in a time of generalized despair and the exhaustion with constantly being compelled to address political and social concerns might have a particular ring of truth coming from that part of the world. Suddenly takes place in no specific time or place, yet this is not to say it is not topical, even if the connection is often indirect. The sense of the political threatening to intrude on “pure” storytelling only subtly colors the interlocking narratives. What is the strife that makes the three intruders so desperate for narrative escape? Why is the writer’s human condition as he experiences it at this moment so hard to write about? The intruders’ apparent nationalities are too eclectic to draw any explicit relation to current events and yet the mere fact of knowing them lends this detail an unknown significance. More direct is the rather problematic comment by the vaguely naïve protoganist in the story “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish” of how TV-worthy it would be to find and record someone in the West bank settlements and Arab villages near Tel Aviv who, of three allotted wishes, would simply look into the distance and choose peace (and indeed the character finds such a person, among the many who wish for money, youth, weight-loss and other more superficial gains).
I have often contemplated what makes puppets such magnets for empathetic emotion—sometimes more so than live actors. There is something to do with scale, detailed precision in movement, and an impulse of recognition. To paraphrase talented New York puppeteer (and former professor of mine), Dan Hurlin, when an actor quickly scratches their nose, you may think nothing of it; when a puppet makes the same gesture, there is a spark of “ah yes! I do that too!” PuppetCinema’s work is filled with such moments: bejeaned legs stroll the sidewalk, idly kick a piece of trash; a sneaker under a café table jerks nervously in a tense negotiation; or, perhaps most wonderfully, a shaggy dog gnaws at its paw and looks up in delight at the appearance of the adored owner. I think this can only really happen with the kind of small-scale, detailed puppetry in which PuppetCinema excel. The fact that they are able to combine puppetry with cinema is a tribute to their skill that is also surprisingly effective. You would think that close camera angles, projected large on the screen backing the performance space would shatter the illusion, or that the added medium would distance the audience, but neither of these things are true. Somehow the pleasures of cinematography meld seamlessly with the vibrancy of live performance, while adding to the contemplation of storytelling as certain shots recall vaguely familiar movie screens, punctuated by moments of delight in perspectival shifts or drastic reversals of scale.
It would be impossible to single out any one company member for particular praise. Nadav Assulin, Simcha Barbiro, Yuval Segal, and Neta Plotnik fluidly share narration and voice the varied cast of characters. Even those without speaking roles play an integral part in the manipulation of puppets, props, and cameras (Gony Paz is listed as puppet director and puppeteer, while Ilya Kreines and Dani Halifa are credited with cinematography). This is true ensemble work. The puppets, designed by Gili Kozin Ulmar, Yana Malisheve, and Mamira Pinkas, and the tiny sets and other visual elements by Aya Zaiger are also works of art.
There may be a few, very brief moments when the narration carried the full burden and my attention wandered, but barely. Blending conventional storytelling, with performance, cinema, sound, and puppetry, Suddenly is a compelling and original theatrical work. It has sweetness and humor, but also depth. In the end, it achieves what the writer feels to be impossible—it tells a story that is, in its own way, social and political, but that is also a story of the human condition. And yes, we need stories—now and always.
Suddenly runs to December 9. More production info can be found here.