Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: (Toronto / Theatre) The Miller and His Wife

(photo by Sheila Sky)
Nose to the grindstone
The Miller works hard, but not much fun
by Jason Booker

What a strange experience.
The Miller and His Wife are two short puppet pieces by the Puppetmongers (siblings Ann and David Powell) that they originally created in the mid-70s. As part of their 40th season, they have chosen to revisit some of their greatest hits, which includes this double-bill of “American Bunraku Puppetry.”
The two halves of the bill, The Miller and the story of His Wife, were created separately and are partnered here as the first shows that the Powells presented professionally. In the earlier show and the opener here, The Miller, the feudal lord comes to collect tithe from the miller and winds up outsmarted when the punishment issued (involving an adorable turn from a stuffed cow) turns into a financial windfall and a damp plunge into a nearby stream. His wife, following a brief resetting of the stage, later owns a bakery and is ordered to make a cake for the king by a scheming chancellor which, again, results in a plan that backfires and the good prevail.

Unfortunately the show uses very dry wit that never quite lands with the audience. Postmodern jokes abound, as when searching for a hidden character behind the scenery or indicating that a puppet should repeat that line at centre stage in the light; however, the fourth wall still feels firmly in place, aside from those occasional tongue-in-cheek remarks.
There was a question and answer after the show. Normally, as a reviewer, I will not stay for this feature unless it is a part of the regular show – why should I, as reviewer, have more information on the context of the show or an interaction with the artist than you, as an audience/reader, might have (aside from a few tidbits that might be in the press kit)? However, Puppetmongers made it clear that they had held these sessions every performance of the run so far. Tragically, what I learned, was how wonderfully personable David and Ann can be when not using their puppets – tragic because that easy friendliness just didn’t come across the stage until their first response. And I wish it had, oh do I wish it had, because it is quite obvious how talented these two are.
Some of their answers revealed – to me – why I felt the way I did about their show. For instance, they mentioned that following the creation of The Miller and His Wife, they began more table-top shows, so as not to exert their backs as much as manipulators. Unfortunately, during the performance, it seemed that the energy of the show got lost in their knee-high puppets and the theatre’s deck, as the Powells' physical posture was not directed towards the audience, being half-bent-over to operate the inanimate characters instead. Certainly, the performing team can be heard narrating the story and delivering dialogue, but they force the charm of the show and the novelty of the puppetry to come through these somewhat inexpressive creations (though they are beautifully and cleverly made). As a result, the shows just didn’t engage my imagination, literally depicting the events in place of cartoonish actions, over-the-top storytelling or adorable bunraku dolls. Sure, the double-bill was cute and clever, but possibly too smart and not all that entertaining or enlightening, particularly for a younger audience who may be intrigued by the puppets but not enraptured.
Rarely have I seen such a dull show performed by such lively folks – not a bad show, mind you, just a bit dull. Thankfully, the full package may work for kids (as Puppetmongers hopes for running during the March Break) and it does only clock in at an hour.
Maybe there’s a reason why we leave the past in the past sometimes.

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