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Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater in "Johannes Dokchtor Faust"
Petrifying Puppet Comedye has been refashioned from the Old Bohemian by Vit Horejs.

Antique Czech marionettes in "Johannes Dokchtor Faust"
Photo by David Schmidlapp
March 23 to April 9
La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
(presented by La MaMa E.T.C.)
Th-Sun at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm, $12/tdf
audience info/box office (212) 475-7710
3/23 benefit reception $30, info 212-777-3891
"Johannes Dokchtor Faust" by Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, translated and directed by Vit Horejs, offers the Czech marionette classic in what is as close to its original as you can get on these shores. The La MaMa production March 23 to April 9 is an enlarged version of Horejs' original staging (1991-1994), which incorporated age-old technical tricks, fire and thunder, hellish gargoyles, underwater creatures and the first definitive American translation of the classic Czech text by the author known today only as "A.B."

The story of the learned Johannes Faust, who sold his soul to the devil for ultimate knowledge, was dramatized in Marlowe's "Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (ca. 1589) and Goethe's "Faust" (1780-1833). Marlowe's play is said to have influenced German and Dutch puppeteers, who in turn influenced Czech puppeteers. Czech marionette plays began appearing in the 17th and 18th centuries and "Faust" became a puppet-stage blockbuster. A dozen or more puppeteering families orally passed down their own versions of the play and one version, signed only with the initials A.B., was finally published in Prague in 1862, the same year in which publisher Vilimek issued a not very authentic transcript of Faust attributed to the legendary puppeteer Matej Kopecky. The text by A.B. was adapted into English in 1990 by Vit Horejs and published by Dilia, Prague in 1993.
Faust and Mephistopheles in "Johannes Dokchtor Faust." Photo by David Schmindlapp

In Bohemia, which became the crucible of European puppet tradition, the Faustian legend has been adopted to such a degree that to this day, tourists visit the house of the 15th century printer, Johann Faust, in Prague and talk of the irreparable hole in the ceiling through which the devil carried out the unfortunate magician. This Faust, an early associate of Gutenberg, is easily confused with the scoundrelly magician and astrologer of Wittemberg, upon whom the original German literature is based. The Prague Faust--or Fust-- mass-produced bibles and tried to pass them off as manuscripts. His brilliant red ink was said to be his blood and he was charged with dealings with the devil. To save himself, he revealed his secret to the Paris Parliament and his invention became the admiration of the world. Czech lore is probably a blend of these two figures. To support the idea that Faust is "mainstream" to the Czechs, it is often pointed out that the Faustian struggle is prevalent in Václav Havel's writings.

With marionette theater, the Czechs brought commedia to the Faustian canon. They introduced the jester, Pimprle (Kasparek), into the story (his appearance in about half of Czech marionette plays gave the name "Pimprle Theater") as well as three other clown characters: Faust's comic guards, Dumpling and Bigcheeze, and his German valet, Wagner. It is certain that Goethe must have seen such puppet productions of Faust as a boy. His own version differs from A.B.'s and most earlier versions in that Goethe's Faust makes a compact with the devil because he genuinely desires to extend the boundaries of his knowledge; in the end he is not damned. In A.B.'s play, he is yanked out to perdition through the ceiling. This exit has been a source of curiosity through the centuries since it seems an indirect route to hell (the floor is closer).

Horejs' English text is about as "literal" as the Czech puppet genre will allow. Czech puppetry has always mocked the authorities and 19th century Czech political jokes would be obscure now. So the text contains passing references to current events (often as gibberish) that have had to be updated even since 1990. Traditional Czech folk satire also requires lots of mocking of their neighbors, the Germans. Horejs felt that German puns would be lost on contemporary New York audiences. So in many places, he converted German puns to yiddishisms which, while also obscure, would at least retain the flavor of the language and be accessible to some of the audience. Yiddish also helped reinforce the comic effect of the piece, since it is a lingua franca for comedy to Americans.

The performers are James Bowen, Deborah Beshaw, Vit Horejs, Theresa Linnihan and Molly Parker. The main Mephistopholes puppet, about 26 inches high and about 100 years old, was fashioned in Kladno, Bohemia by Karel Krob, a mason and shoemaker. This Mephisto is a "cobbler marionette"; the expression refers to a puppet any cobbler could make. There are also two copies of Mephisto, differently-sized, used to make him shrink and grow as he gains and loses power. The puppet of Faust is a copy of a folk puppet originally crafted in a Czech-American company 100 to 160 years ago. The balance of the 20-or-so puppets in the show come from the troupe's repertory.

Vit Horejs and puppet ensemble of Czechoslovak American Marionette Theater
Photo by David Schmindlapp
Vit Horejs, an émigré from Prague, founded Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre in 1990 utilizing century-old Czech puppets which he found in the Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. His trademark is using puppets of many sizes, from six-inch toy marionettes to approximately human-sized ones. Horejs is well-known for innovative re-interpretations of classics, including:

**The earlier productions of "Johannes Dokchtor Faust" (1991, 1993, 1994), which incorporated age-old technical tricks, fire and thunder, hellish gargoyles and underwater creatures The work was part of NADA's Obie-winning Faust Festival in 1994.

**"The White Doe" (1993, 1995), which blended traditional and modern puppetry and music,

**The film "Faust on a String," which received a Golden Eagle Award from CINE (Washington, DC) and has been screened in major festivals,

**"Golem" (1997, 1998), a dance work based on the Czech Jewish legend with music by Frank London, which was first presented by La MaMa E.T.C. and became part of the Jim Henson Foundation's Fourth International Festival of Puppet Theater last fall,

**A much-celebrated puppet version of "Hamlet" (1997), which debuted at the Vineyard Theater and subsequently was produced at the Karagöz Festival in Bursa, Turkey,

**"Rusalka, the Little Rivermaid" (1999), featuring music by jazz legend William Parker, which played to capacity audiences in La MaMa's Annex Theater last January and whose enthusiastic reception prompted a return engagement a month later,

**"Twelve Iron Sandals" and "The Fisherman's Clever Daughter," which were performed in site-specific repertory last fall in the decaying ballrooms of Bohemian Hall, 321 E. 73rd Street.

The tradition of Czech itinerant puppeteers reaches as far back as the 17th Century. What started as imitation of the earlier English, Italian, and Dutch puppet tradition, in Austrian Empire and Germany, developed into a relationship of mutual influence, with many Austrian, German and Czech companies performing both in Czech and German.

The puppeteering family owned a transportable stage, about twenty marionettes, and a set of at least four backdrops: a room, a village, a royal castle, and a forest. In the earlier period, the theatre was transported on a wheelbarrow, only later could some afford a cart with a pack horse. For most puppeteers, a box cart with living quarters remained a distant dream.

One performer, usually the "principal" or head of the troupe, produced the voices of all the characters and was also the main puppet operator. The other family members, including children and a maid, helped in every other facet of the performance. Some puppeteers worked in other jobs and trades and took their wooden performers on the road only during the off season. Others supplemented their income by acrobatics, juggling, fire eating, selling patent medicines and stealing poultry.

Since their main goal was entertainment of prevalently adult audiences, itinerant puppeteers presented "chevalieresque" scenes, otherwordly apparitions and other "sensational" themes. They shared these themes and their performance space at village fairs and marketplaces with the immensely popular semi-folk singers of interminably long crime and love songs as described in chap-books and penny dreadfulls. The puppet troupes were by law excluded from performing in large cities. Their peasant audiences, for whom the puppets often presented their only exposure to theatre, had to rely on them for information about the life of nobility. But the "high" themes were inevitably invaded by "low" comical characters the village oaf "Skrhola," dingle-bell clad joker "Kasparek" (Pimprele), etc. Other powerful sources of folk tradition, fairy tales, reached the puppet stages only in the second half of the 19th century after an audience crisis, caused by increased competition and refinement of taste, forced the puppeteers to search for new audiences--children. Plots and fantastic characters (water spirit "Vodnik") from the widely known fairy tales joined the always present kings, knights, princesses, devils, skeletons, necromancers and witches that had populated the puppet stage.

"Johannes Dokchtor Faust" is intended for children from 4 to 104. Parents are cautioned that there are long spoken passages and that real fire is used. [NYTW]

Related article: La MaMa sets 1999-2000 season schedule

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