Basil Twist’s “Petrushka” is a cloth and wood fantasia and the trippiest hour I have spent in a Boston theater this season.
Picture this: you’re in the grand art deco Mainstage auditorium at the Paramount Center, with it’s gilded facades, operatic murals and red velvet curtains. On the stage before you is a stage-upon-a-stage—a puppet theater with calligraphic golden borders, a black scrim and its own velvet curtain. On either side, the Elkina sisters, identical twins in long black gowns, sit at identical black pianos.
As they commence the twinkling Stravinsky score, a sort of three-dimensional screen-saver of dancing abstract shapes begins the ballet. This is the prelude to our story. It begins at a Russian carnival at which minaret topped buildings jut and pulse in response to lively folk music performed by a band of gigantic gloved hands playing mandolins, concertinas and castanets
The stars of the show are Petrushka, the eponymous, clownish, kazachoc-dancing peasant; the beautiful ballerina he loves, and the fiery, muscle-bound, scimitar flourishing Moor, upon whom her long-lashed eyes have set. These puppets are more alive than any work of CGI. Each has its own rhythm, its own rich vocabulary of movements, its own soul.
“Petrushka” was originally performed in 1911 by the flesh-and-blood dancers of the Ballets Russes including the legendary Vaslav Njinski in the title role. In this production, the dancers played puppets in a story about the limits of free will. Twist is therefore, just cutting out a middleman of sorts in this reimagining. Not only does he take full advantage of the medium, playing fast and lose with perspective, with levels of abstraction, and with the laws of physics, he also adds a while new layer of thematic meaning.
In this form, the play is not simply about the way humans are manipulated by external forces to the exclusion of free will, it becomes about how in spite of this, when working in concert, we have tremendous creative power; as puppeteers and as audience members we can breath pulsing life into previously inanimate objects, giving them energy, passion and the ability to rouse our emotions.