review by Kristin Haverty
The poetry of “Still Life” lies within its page turns, allowing us to savor the deliciousness of the absurdity before turning to the next morsel.
Originally published in The Puppetry Journal (Summer 2019 Vol. 70 No. 3)
“Still Life” by Matt Sandbank’s is a one-man show consisting of a series of cleverly executed shadow puppet vignettes. It was not surprising to find that Sandbank has a background in poetry, as the evening evoked the sensation of sitting down with a well-curated collection of poems. The title vignette, “Still Life,” finds a painter attempting to craft a still life of a flower. But real life is not static, and the flower fails to behave, driving the man to madness and a vastly different masterpiece from the one he set out to do.
A recurring vignette that had wide audience approval found a hapless T-Rex trying to make his way in a modern world of arcade games, vending machines and soda cans. The absurdity of the situations, combined with Sandbank’s expressive manipulation of the ill-equipped dinosaur, leaves you rooting for the poor guy, despite his poor anger management.
Another segment found an alien spacecraft hovering over a farm, beaming up a duck, cow and farmer only to be outwitted by a woman with a vacuum. Visual imagery of an ab “duck” tion led Sandbank to quip, “Leave it to a puppeteer to put puns in a nonverbal show.”
The puppeteer clearly knows his audience. Because the week of the festival was the anniversary of the moon landing, an ill-fated shadow lunar adventure bit was a particular delight. Up and down the curtain fell as Sandbank transitioned between each flight of imagination. An out-of-key singing hat, an ominous and immensely tempting red button, and an end-of-days prophecy all found their way onstage in ways that were fun, oftentimes unexpected, and expertly crafted and manipulated.
One of the strengths of puppetry is how it can realize innovative staging and take clever turns of story so simply, and Sandbank takes full advantage of the form. Vignette formats, particularly when punctuated with action-less transitions, can sometimes wear on one’s attention. Yet, the poetry of “Still Life” lies within its page turns, allowing us to savor the deliciousness of the absurdity before turning to the next morsel.