Handspring Puppet Company performs adaptation of ‘Woyzeck’
By Kate Sullivan, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, September 24, 2012
From the first loud bellows of the larger-than-life character of the Barker, the only humanoid puppet featured in the puppet adaptation of George Buchner’s play “Woyzeck on the Highveld,” the Handspring Puppet Company captivated its audience, drawing attention and bringing intensity to the puppet-driven adaptation of the iconic play.
This version of the play transports “Woyzeck on the Highveld” from 19th-century Prussia to 1950s South Africa. It tells the story of Woyzeck, a man working as a servant to a military captain who is frustrated by his life and haunted by the increasing apocalyptic and dark visions in his head. Because of this dark descent, Woyzeck resorts to killing his wife.
The show featured the company’s trademark wooden puppets, operated by visible actors, and animated charcoal drawings crafted by the show’s director, William Kentridge.
The puppets were astonishing in their ability to convey such a rich range of emotion. This was evident throughout the entire performance and highlighted most in a scene in which Woyzeck sits alone watching the night sky. Although Kentridge’s animations portrayed the constellations behind the puppet, the audience was able to grasp Woyzeck’s inner feelings of sadness simply through the puppet’s efficient gestures.
The show’s dialogue was sharp and witty, namely the lines delivered by the Barker. In the performance, the Barker serves as the liaison between the human and puppet world. He began the show by making the humorous announcement that “the commencement of the beginning is about to start.” The dialogue delivered by the puppet characters was important, though it was their movements that did a better job of conveying the storyline and emotions.
The audience was able to see the fine handiwork of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones in the entertaining scene that included the puppet rhino. Although the scene was hilarious, it still dove into the existential depths that the play often scoured, as the Barker asked questions of civilization’s progress and the reason for man’s existence.
Based out of Cape Town, South Africa, the Handspring Puppet Company — recently celebrated and renowned for the direction, design and creation of the horses in the Tony Award-winning play “War Horse” — was founded in 1981 by artistic director Kohler and executive producer Jones. Throughout their 30 years of work, Kohler and Jones have worked extensively with Kentridge. The 1992 debut of “Woyzeck on the Highveld” was the company’s first collaboration.
Kohler and Jones spent the past week as Montgomery Fellows. In addition to Friday and Saturday’s performances, the pair visited several classrooms and gave a Montgomery Lecture titled “I Love You When You’re Breathing.”
The lecture featured a suit-wearing, life-sized puppet controlled by three men. Kohler and Jones discussed their own history with puppetry, the origins of their company and basic puppet mechanics prior to delving into the heavier themes of the talk. The lecture, described by the company as a “meta-theatrical address,” offered perceptions of the complex themes of existence and physical being, discussing how these can be incorporated into the inanimate world of a puppet.
The lecture explained the importance and relevance in using puppetry. Kohler recounted Kentridge’s joke that “working with puppets is like doing lengths in a swimming pool full of rocks.”
“It’s true, puppets are hard,” Jones said. “There are mechanisms that have to be mastered by your thumbs and fingers. There is the weight of the puppet which is often held above your head. There’s the dexterity and rhythm of its walk, there’s the breath of the puppet and of course, you expect to remember the words.”
Performing with puppets requires mastering another extension of your body that doesn’t actually belong to you, which is not a skill learned in acting class.
“You’re constantly reminded that this piece of wood is dead,” Kohler said. “The moment you walk on stage, the struggle is on; at every second you have to fight for the puppet’s life. The audience can see every nuance of what it does and doesn’t achieve.”
The decision to pursue an adaptation of Buchner’s play through puppetry was obvious to the Handspring Puppet Company.
“One of the most obvious answers is that puppetry brings things to life, and that we as human beings have the deepest desire, a desire that’s almost embedded in our DNA, to believe in the possibility that things can have life,” Kohler said.
In a question-and-answer session that followed Friday’s performance, Kohler and Jones explained how puppetry is an effective medium for conveying the inner world of Woyzeck.
“We found that actually in just having a puppet on stage, the puppet’s face becomes a kind of tabula rasa for the audience to project their thoughts and emotions,” Kohler said. “The audience will author the thoughts of the puppet.”
The pair also explained how the rhino in this production was a predecessor for the creation of the horses in “Warhorse.” The articulated leg of the rhino gave way to their creation of a hyena, which ultimately led to a giraffe operated by two puppeteers on stilts, Kohler said. He recounted how the “puppeteer fell and the puppet didn’t break, so we knew it was the right material for the horses.”
Kunyi Li contributed to the reporting of this article.