Puppets in Review- Basil Twist

Basil Twist – Puppets and Spain

Ethical Culture Society. New York, NY
March 21, 2002

review by Donald Devet

Basil Twist knows how to stay true to the ancient Andalusian melodies and Moorish chantings and at the same time interject moments of subtle humor.

Puppets and music often go hand in hand. Who among us has not been inspired to pick up a puppet and sway to the beat? There is something elemental and primitive in the act of keeping time. But developing an interplay between puppet and music without letting the music overpower the puppet is tricky business, a business Basil Twist knows well.

His proven track record of award winning shows attests to his skills- “The Araneidae Show,” “Symphonie Fantastique” and “Petrushka,” all winners of Citations of Excellence from UNIMA-USA. A special award should be given to “Symphonie Fantastique_–which ran for a year in New York, toured the U.S., France, England and Germany, and will soon be seen at Lincoln Center –for establishing theatre puppetry for adults as something “cool”.

And now Twist has turned his keen ear and eye to a new venture- “Master Peter’s Puppet Show,” a musical score for puppets by the Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. Composed in 1919 and premiered in Seville in 1923, the story is taken directly from Cervantes’ tale in which Don Quixote encounters a traveling puppet theater. “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” is one of a handful of de Falla’s musical pieces written exclusively for puppets. What’s even more amazing is that de Falla also wrote detailed stage directions for the puppeteers.

Twist was not immediately drawn to such an obvious choice of projects– a real puppet stage and a “real” puppet show. His other productions have been mounted on large open stages and in a giant fish tank. Why would he want to work within the narrow confines of a conventional Punch and Judy booth? But other elements made Twist think twice. First, he had never worked with music, puppets and text. Second, this was a rare opportunity to collaborate with a live orchestra.

The Eos Orchestra, founded in 1995 and conducted by Jonathan Sheffer, has a reputation for expanding the realm of the traditional concert format by combining musical and theatrical stage experiences. Twist’s flair for design and movement fits right in with this orchestra’s goals.

The evening’s program began not with the puppet show but with an homage to the poet Garcia Lorca whose words are set to music by the composers Silvestre Revueltas and Paul Bowles. Then there were two pieces by Frenchman Maurice Ravel with a decidedly Spanish flavor– “Don Quichotte a Dulcinee” and the ballet piece, “Bolero.”

Usually mounted with a full orchestra, “Bolero” retained all its mystery and passion with a smaller 30 piece ensemble. Uncut, yet obviously rearranged, “Bolero,” in spite of its reputation from the movie “10,” hasn’t truly been heard unless it’s been experienced “live.” The interplay of plucked strings, incessant snare drums, haunting bassoons and horns was as thrilling to the eye as it was to the ear. Even without the puppet show, “Bolero” was worth the price of admission.

The program concluded with “Master Peter’s Puppet Show.” Because of space limitations–an orchestra takes up a lot of room on stage–Twist decided to play the puppets directly upstage of the musicians with a combination of small rod and life size characters while supertitles were projected overhead. Three singers gave voice to: Master Peter (Enrique Abdala), the boy narrator (Robert Gupta) and Don Quixote (Chris Trakas).

In less experienced hands “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” could have been a bore. The boy narrator tells us everything that’s going to happen before we see it, thereby removing any possibility of tension or surprise. But Twist knows how to stay true to the ancient Andalusian melodies and Moorish chantings and at the same time interject moments of subtle humor. These small moments–Master Peter’s double take to his audience of one, Don Quixote, costumed in his traditional armor and lance; the energetic pawing of the air by a tiny white stallion; and a door opening scene straight out of the classic television comedy “Get Smart”– brought an extra dimension to this odd marriage of Spanish history, literature and song.

In a pre-curtain conversation between Twist and Sheffer, Twist was quick to point out that he had envisioned “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” as a show of shifting realities, the concept of puppets not only performing a puppet show but also acting as the audience. This idea is not new. The creators of “The Muppet Show” made millions from this same concept. What sets Twist apart is his sensitive eye for perspective. Along with lighting designer Andrew Hill, Twist draws us deep into his small world of visual illusions. Just as Don Quixote falls under the spell of the story of the abduction of Melisandra by Moors, so do we.

In the end, Quixote’s involvement results in confusing Melisandra with his own sweet Dulcinee. In an attempt to rescue her he causes the collapse of the puppet stage and thus the illusion is broken. Don Quixote exits through the audience towards a bright light in hopes of even greater conquests. We can only wish him our best as we do Basil Twist in his next conquest of marrying puppets to music.

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