Chicago Sun-Times
Whimsical 'Petrushka' uses puppets to enchant
Thursday, September 8, 2005

The most enchanting, imaginative and artful performance to be seen in Chicago this week is sadly all but hidden away on the post-Labor Day calendar at Ravinia. What a shame.

Basil Twist's production of "Petrushka With Puppets," which plays for just four more performances at the Ravinia Festival's intimate Bennett Gordon Hall, is a work of unadulterated fantasy, whimsy and soulfulness. To say that it is puppet theater of the most glorious sort is to miss the point; it is beguiling art, pure and simple, with the added benefit of a two-piano rendering of Stravinsky's hypnotic ballet score.

Those who consign puppetry to the realm of children's entertainment -- or perceive it as an art form to be satirized, as it was in "Being John Malkovich" -- are shutting themselves off from a truly magical adult experience. This "Petrushka," the creation of a puppeteer with an international reputation, should have been booked for a long run at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre, the Dance Center of Columbia College or Looking glass Theatre. Maybe it will return.

In any case, words can hardly describe the delights and endless creativity on display. Take, for example, the way Twist suggests the Shrovetide fair in a Russian city -- the backdrop for this story about a puppet triangle that includes Petrushka, a waifish fellow in love with a coquettish ballerina who also is being pursued by a ferocious Moor. All it takes to conjure the scene is a parade of gaily colored onion domes; a swirl of golden fabric that captures the fabulous tail of a peacock or firebird; a Busby Berkeley-like ballet by a bouquet of roses, and a roving band of musicians playing the balalaika, accordion, horn and spoons. The band seems to have a life of its own because all we see are the giant white-gloved puppet hands of the instrumentalists. (The show uses a mix of techniques, including Japanese bunraku and Czech "black-style" puppetry.)

The central characters are marionettes whose dancing is nothing short of astonishing. Their balletic gestures and detailed body language come courtesy of the manipulations of a superb team of nine puppeteers who are so skillful you almost wish you could watch the show a second time, from backstage.

And then there's the dancing bear -- a staple of Russian carnivals, created here in something approaching King Kong scale.

All this unfolds within a giant gilded proscenium frame (lit by Andrew Hill), with grand pianos played impeccably by identical twin Russian sisters Irina and Julia Elkina. The whole thing -- including a lovely rendering of Stravinsky's "Sonata for Two Pianos" as a prologue -- lasts just an hour. But it is unforgettable.

CORRECTION: For tickets for the highly recommended production of "Death of a Salesman" by the Hypocrites, reviewed Wednesday, phone (312) 902-1500.

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