The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies at University of Toronto are in the midst of a residency by Cakes and Puppets, a Czech puppetry company. Who are they and what are they presenting in this brief visit?
Cakes and Puppets/Buchty a Loutky is an experimental puppet theatre company from the Czech Republic. Founded in 1991 by graduates of the puppet department of the Prague Academy of the Performing Arts, Cakes and Puppets has premiered over 40 live productions for adults and children and they have designed stop-motion sequences for films including Lars von Trier’s The Antichrist. Their performances combine old toys, discarded objects, and fine art sculpture. Their aesthetic has been called “punk puppetry” and “the theatre of Do-It-Yourself.” Their work spans fairy tales, opera, and a recent “Reloaded” series of puppet productions of classic and cult films including Rocky, Psycho, Jaws, and Barbarella.
For their North American premiere, Cakes and Puppets will bring two productions to the Luella Massey Studio Theatre at the University of Toronto. The first is their adaptation of Petr Sis’s Caldecott Award-winning book Tibet: Through the Red Door. Sis’s father, a documentary filmmaker, was sent to China in the 1950s to film a Chinese construction crew building a highway. Separated from the workers and caught in a blizzard, the elder Sis witnessed events that he could only communicate to his son through tales of gentle Yetis, an encounter with the Dalai Lama, and other “magical stories.” In 1994, Sis discovered his father’s diary, locked in a red box, with the message “The diary is now yours.” Tibet filters Cold War intercultural tensions through the eyes of a child—and an adult reflecting on his Central European past.
The Three Little Pigs is a retelling of the classic children’s story with modern updates, including wisecracking pigs and at least three houses that are built and blown down by a determined wolf. Children and parents are encouraged to stay after each performance to meet the company and try out their puppets.
In addition to appearances in classes the troupe will present
- TONIGHT A video of their collaboration between the Czech baroque ensemble Collegium marianum and Buchty a loutky (“Cakes and Puppets”) in La Calisto, by Francesco Cavalli
- Feb 12 & 13 at 1:00 pm: Three Little Pigs (for children & adults)
- Feb 11, 12 & 13 at 8:00 pm: Tibet: Through the Red Box
Before the opera video we had a question & answer session. While it may have been unorthodox to start with the questions, it was out of respect for the jet-lagged artists/artisans who had just arrived, and have a full agenda over the next few days. Professor Veronika Ambros served as translator, assisting moderators Linda & Michael Hutcheon, who followed the showing with additional Q & A from the floor, while sharing some fascinating stories of puppet opera from around the world. Thursday afternoon there’s an additional session with the Hutcheons and Buchty a loutky discussing “operatic puppetry”.
It seems clear to me that we can see most of these things at least two ways: there are troupes specializing in various disciplines –thinking particularly of puppets, dance or circus and aerial work— and also,, when we come to opera, these artists / artisans are called upon to become part of the team, if not the expressive vocabulary of opera. Robert Lepage once called opera “the mother of all the arts”, perhaps in recognition that he was himself promoting (if not re-patriating) the pure spectacle of the old operas from the 17th century (a choice that’s been resisted in some quarters, embraced in others). Tomorrow I’ll be seeing the Canadian Opera Company’s Siegfried (directed by François Girard / designed by Michael Levine), that features prominent aerial work and puppetry (thinking for instance of the giant dragon made up of humans strung together into a wiggly pyramid). Every decade there are different design trends, so I wouldn’t dream of what the next decade holds…
There was a lot of giggling in the first ten minutes, perhaps out of the simple delight in the marionettes. We saw portrayals of gods and goddesses by marionettes and humans alike, including a Zeus who made a fantastic gender change right before our eyes to imitate the goddess Diana, changing from a bass to a counter-tenor (although the voice change was not done through any sort of surgical intervention!). The laughter subsided as the beauty of the medium worked its magic.
The video was a bit frustrating in some of the same ways that the recent Lulu from the Metropolitan Opera high definition broadcast series was frustrating (in fact Lulu drove me nuts). The camera zeroed in on exemplary performances, while often leaving us wondering about the overall stage picture. For La Calisto this was particularly concerning, because we missed the visual tension between the puppet theatre and the surrounding ensemble of singers & players, some of whom stepped into that puppet theatre space. Any video of a live performance must make such a choice (and you can’t please everyone), losing the extra possibilities one has in the live performance space.
Fortunately everything else being offered is live, so you don’t risk that kind of frustration.