Friday, July 29, 2011

Dead Puppet Society's 'The Harbinger'

The Old Man watches the Little Girl the whole time. Not nearly as uncomfortable as you'd think.
Dead Puppet Society have presented 'The Harbinger' at La Boite Indie over the last two weeks, and I'm delighted to say that it's been playing to sell-out audiences. Indie and low-budget productions are often shunted in Brisbane (but isn't all theatre?) so it's makes me feel good that people are getting behind and supporting these companies. 'The Harbinger' is simply charming - a delightful mise en scène feast of the senses to experience a melancholic story told through the innovative fusion of puppetry and animation.

The whole thing felt like a grown-ups fairytale, so I wasn't surprised when I read that Morton states he wanted to evoke a play that was partly a storybook. The play is centred around the life of an old bookseller living a ruined city in a post-apocalyptic like state. A little girl seeks refuge in his bookshop and they form a tentative and unlikely friendship, before they reminisce about happier times in the shelter of the books around them. There is something about the story that makes me want to think it's some kind of fable with a deeper meaning, but alas, I didn't have anyone to discuss it with.

The central focus, and highlight, of the show are the puppets. The stage is dominated by a large puppet, The Old Man, who is operated by three female actors (one of which looks suspiciously like Rosalind James). The women on stage operate and move the hands and head of this daunting figure, and although they flawlessly operate the figure, we never lose sight of them. I wish that they could have been better integrated into the story, rather than been ignored completely – could they have been the Old Man's daughters? Other refugees? A rat runs across the man, and he shows some emotion to it – could they have been other rats or vermin to represent how dilapidated the environment had become? In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter though, since we believe in the Old Man's stories, and by extension, we believe his character is real. Combined with the wonderful animation, the Old Man gets a fairly in-depth back-story, and considering he lives in a dump, we get the idea that he's pretty tired and sorrowful – so, we believe he's a real character. His character is just as realistic and believable as if there was a real actor on stage. In addition to the old man, there are also a few marionettes that are used throughout the show to re-enact stories, and they're just as entertaining to watch.

With the exception of a few sporadic lines from the soothing narrator, and a single distressing scream, the play is performed without any dialogue or noise coming from the performers. This approach was particularly innovative, although it was certainly a trial. I heard from a number of audience members that it was difficult to sit so long without hearing dialogue, and I admit I found it a little tedious, but overall it was fascinatingly different and quite admirable to get a mixed reaction from the crowd. All of the story is shown via animation, gestures, or movement.

The film and animation sequences in the show are superb, it's like being treated to a moving picture book. The esoteric and roughly drawn pictures are colourful and captivating, and are truly innovative in creating a story within a story. It's like watching living art in front of you which deepens your involvement and understanding in the story. There was only one point that could have been improved and that was a scene near the end, where the animation reverted to a sort of cartoon-ized rendering of the villain. It wasn't remotely foreboding or fearsome, and all he needed to complete the image was a monocle and a moustache to twirl, while cackling “I'll get you, my pretty!” to the little girl. It was jarring that a character suddenly received so much detail, and he looked like a pirate. Besides that one moment, the animation was very slick and it was always entertaining to watch.

The only aspect of the play that I actively disliked was the the score. The music was obnoxious and only tolerable, as it was perpetually in your face since there was no dialogue to take focus away from it. There was little differentiation between the sound, and most of the score is comprised of synths. There is some sense of appreciation for the marriage between the music and the set to begin with, but it's just unending, dull and repetitive - at times we could have done with some silence (which could have been just as, if not more effective). Generally most shows easily get away with not having great, memorable music, but usually it's not so bombastic that's it's distracting.

Settings and props are another particular highlight within the show. 'The Harbinger' takes place within a weathered and ravaged bookshop, which is perfectly presented and totally compliments the use of the . The ruined room emits an ancient elegance, and it is accompanied by small stacks of books and lose pages which are sprinkled across the stage. The lighting accentuates and compliments the set, with a scrim being used for projections and to wash the shade with the appropriate colours to intensify the emotions being portrayed on-stage. On a whole it looks intimate, charming and timeless - with this setting the play could be set 200 years in the past, or 100 years in the future.

'The Harbinger' is one of the best theatrical pieces I've seen this year. With its innovative fusion of puppetry and animation, with a gorgeous setting and an enchantingly macabre story, Dead Puppet Society have created a wonderful piece of work that everyone should go see- it's so under the radar and not at all mainstream, I'm sure hipsters everywhere are having fits of glee. Except the season has now sold out, so if you don't have tickets quel dommage. When it's re-staged somewhere and running for a long season, make sure you make the trip to see the show.

Tickets for all La Boite Indie are $25, and helps support local theatre communities). 'The Harbinger' presented by Dead Puppet Society and La Boite Indie runs until July 30th. Book by visiting La Boite's website or by calling (07) 3007 8600. Photos on this page by Al Caeiro for promotional purposes.

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