Puppets in Review- Théâtre de l'Oeil

Théâtre de l’Oeil- Starkeeper

The New Victory, New York, NY
April 16, 1999

review by Donald Devet

If the intent of “Starkeeper” is to regale us with a showcase of puppetry styles, a “theatre of images” then, Théâtre de l’Oeil has brilliantly succeeded.

Before the show begins the audience hears the ocean’s tides and views an oversized electrical wall outlet. The sound and image seem incongruous. But it doesn’t take long to discover their relationship. Playing with scale and manipulating sound are the chief devices that entice us into an imaginary world of sky and ocean and everything in between.

The story is simple. A star has fallen out of the sky. A pixieish worm-like character, Pretzel, attempts to return the star to its rightful place. On his odyssey he encounters a host of fantastic creatures. And oh, what characters! There’s Maggie Mischief, a sprightly child whose gibberish and temper tantrums are fully appreciated by younger audience members. A giant pair of scrawny legs signals Uncle Bob’s entrance. His stomach transforms into a cabaret stage complete with footlights and a tap dancing spider.

There’s Huey the Unicyclist who serenely balances on a spider spun thread. Then Cedrick the Centaur, another giant, strolls by. Two Accordion-Fish play ping-pong with the wayward star. Marlene, the curvaceous mermaid, assists Pretzel in his underwater search. In the watery depths live a pearl fish, a seahorse family and the octopus-like Bubble Charmer. And there are more, each character more fantastic than the one before.

The puppets are marionettes, shadow and Bunraku (black theatre style) played against a black background. All are exquistely designed and manipulated by a team of four not quite invisible puppeteers. Strings, rods and gloved hands sometimes become distracting because of the extreme side lighting demanded of black theatre. But the smooth scene changes inspired by cinematic techniques– traveling sets, changes in perspective and optical effects–more than make up for a few visible gloves. The underwater scenes are the most effective. Seen through a thin green veil, the ping-pong fish with their shimmery undulating tails are magical.

The major strength of “Starkeeper” is the element of surprise. The audience, even though well informed in the program notes, is amazed by each new character’s antics. And because the story is wordless with only spots of music and sound effects, we must pay careful attention to every movement.

But oddly enough, the show’s strength is also its major drawback. A succession of imaginative characters only whets the appetite for more fantastic characters. “Starkeeper” appears to be a highly sophisticated variety show that lacks a strong story line. To be a true odyssey, our hero must have conflicts and setbacks and moments when we wonder if he’ll succeed at all. Pretzel’s mission to return the star to its rightful place is never much of a struggle. In the end, it becomes clear that the star’s return is anticlimactic, serving merely as a device to introduce us to yet another new character. But if the intent of “Starkeeper” is to regale us with a showcase of puppetry styles, a “theatre of images” then,  Théâtre de l’Oeil has brilliantly succeeded.

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