nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
January 6, 2012
Puppetry operates through a peculiar kind of magic. There is no illusion or sleight of hand. Despite seeing the operator manipulate the puppet and knowing it has no agency of its own, it takes on a distinct and enchanting kind of life. This applies equally no matter how elaborate the puppet, whether it's Charlie Chaplin's potato feet or the elaborate mounts of War Horse. So it is explained by the protagonist of The Table, a small, crotchety Bunraku puppet standing on a table.
Bunraku, as he explains, is a traditional Japanese form of puppetry in which an articulated, full-body puppet is operated by a small team of puppeteers each holding different parts. After welcoming us to the theater, the puppet explains that he is going to perform the last twelve hours of the life of Moses...on a table. However, he never quite gets started with his story, as he keeps getting sidetracked by explanations of how he is a puppet on a table, ostensibly providing the audience with context for the performance they are about to witness. He walks us through his favorite parts of the table and what he likes to do on them. He ribs and jokes with his puppeteers. He makes it clear that he is not, in fact, alive, and demonstrates the proper techniques for convincing puppeteering versus some common mistakes. The more he discusses his condition, the more obsessed with it he becomes. The horror really begins to dawn on him when he starts to question the girl that periodically brings him props. Only occasionally part of his world, he is unable to account for how she can exist beyond the table, and rapidly slides into a Beckettian existential crisis.
The puppetry itself is phenomenally well-executed. Moses' dialog is hilarious, with a fresh, improvisational feel. A puppet on a table having an existential crisis about being a puppet on a table is a premise that could easily veer into pretension, but Blind Summit manages to avoid that entirely with a show that is immensely funny and even at times moving. The puppet's crisis is followed by a briefer second act where the company members perform “some French puppetry” (wearing appropriate berets, cigarettes in hand). They remove from a suitcase and hold up an elaborate sequence of crude drawings on white paper, creating a sort of live, lo-fi animation. In both parts of the show, Blind Summit takes simple means and makes magic through sharp humor grounded in extraordinary technical skill, setting a high bar for what puppetry can achieve that has nothing to do with budget.