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Kelly Aliano

The Life of a Puppet

"King Executioner,"
adapted and directed by Vit Horejs
Performed by Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre
March 21 to April 7, 2013
Theater for the New City (Cino Theater), 155 First Ave.
Presented by Theater for the New City
Th-Sat @ 8:00 PM, Sun at 3:00 PM.
$10 gen. adm.; Box office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Kelly Aliano March 22, 2013

L-R: Theresa Linnihan, Deborah Beshaw, Michelle Beshaw, Joseph Garner
and Christopher Scheer. Photo by Adele Bossard.

Life and death—two forces that cannot be separated from one another. The live and the inanimate—two forms of being that supposedly affect us in different ways. And yet, sometimes, it is precisely something that is not living that can remind us of the joy of being alive. "King Executioner," written and directed by Vit Horejš, asks its audiences to take a journey through life that is riddled with death. It does so by creating a world in which a character is both a live human and an inanimate puppet. Like our protagonist, Piotr, we must face a cruel world, filled with war and suicide and guilt. And yet, on the other side of all of that suffering, there is also love and friendship and, ultimately, life. According to this play, presented by The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, it is the positive forces that win out in the end. This tale, told by non-living puppets and live puppeteers simultaneously, reminds its audiences the simple beauty of being alive. In so doing, it is a unique and rewarding theatergoing experience.

The story begins with two friends, Piotr and Jasiek, stealing apples, laughing, and getting themselves into the seemingly simple hijinks of young men. Yet, as this small town study continues, the stakes become higher and higher. The citizens face worse and worse situations until finally, war comes to Poland. These characters form relationships, but even these simple interactions and interconnections carry their own trauma. Piotr, for one, cannot escape the visions of those he has lost, seeing their faces in the bark of a tree and constantly within his mind's eye. Life, it seems, is painfully inextricable from the indelible marks left by death. Can a man who feels pain so acutely survive in a world where dying is an everyday reality? It is this struggle with which Piotr must contend for the duration of the drama.

Christopher Scheer as Piotr.
Jason Candler as Moses.
Deborah Beshaw-Farrell
and puppet Hela.

Telling the plot of this play does not remotely do justice to the experience of watching this at times heartwarming and, at others, heartbreaking drama. The puppetry here is masterful and I occasionally found myself forgetting to watch the live actors because these performing objects were so compelling. The puppeteers are present throughout: rather than trying to mask their presence, this production embraces them as a second incarnation of the on-stage characters. There is musical accompaniment, which enhances every scene, and the costumes round out the landscape of this world. In addition, sketches are cycled through light boxes as part of the stage set. These images act both to mirror aspects of the narrative and to highlight certain elements of the theme to the audience.

Piotr (R) is visited by the Komandant (L).

The text of the play is poetic and memorable and the puppet design is exquisite. Particularly impressive was a larger-than-life, multi-actor Commandant, a figure whose symbolic identity permeates his artistic design. In terms of performances, of particular note is the production's clarinetist, who brilliantly embodies the character of Moses, quite possibly the most compelling performance in the show.

The overall here is a production not-to-be-missed. However, there are some places where the production does drag; especially in the earlier sections, I had some difficulty following the plot. Yet the spectacle of this production more than balances out these slight flaws. It is a joy to watch what is happening, if for no other reason than to see what theatrical trick they will attempt next. The beauty of this spectacle is its simplicity; this allows the effect to seem magical, not technological, like so many other productions.

"King Executioner" is charming, meaningful, and memorable. These puppets can teach their audiences as much about life as any cast of live actors might. This coupled with the brilliant human touches in this production make it a show I will remember for a long time to come. From a great deal of death, Piotr remembered to live and to love. Because of a handful of puppets, we can celebrate the "life" inherent in live performance.

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