by Dr. Kyriakos Loukakos, Music and Lyric Theatre critic – honorary president of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Union (established 1928)
Once more the Czech Arts and Theatre Institute lured us to Prague with a promising showcase drawing on Puppet Theatre in the many forms of its development and use. We had already been impressed, during our first visit to the Czech capital by the books of the Institute presenting the whole scope of performing arts in the Republic, from extensive thematic surveys to even minimal, 2-page leaflets (!), one of which we also kept as a model of its kind.
Having missed an introductory visit to the Puppet Museum in Pilsen, we nevertheless followed an intensive and in many ways illuminating 3-day program of performances. Two of the most articulate and finished productions were due to the already historic DRAC Theatre and International Institute of Figurative Theatre, imbued by the traditions of Eastern Bohemia, which celebrated in 2018 its 60 years of wide range productions. Its seat is in Hradec Králové , where we attended their aspect of Jack London’s «White Fang», a version for children and adults alike, interestingly using actors instead of puppets as the dogs of the piece, in order to maximize empathy of his mainly young public with the strong messages. It was an intensive performance, combining craftsmanship of micro puppetry projections on a video wall with clarity of ideals, especially in times of global anger and hate politics.
We had a second chance to sample DRAC’s remarkable achievement, this time at the Minor Theatre in Prague, «primarily associated with puppet and children’s theatre», beautifully situated in its new modern building of Vodičkova Street and one of the main venues of our Event. «Inspired by the experience of children with Asperger’s syndrome», «Mimon» (Oddball) presents a puppet figure with their behaviour traits as a creature from outer space, who evades its planet in course of overheating to seek refuge elsewhere, successively to planets bearing the Greek names of «Γέλως» (Laughter), «Κάλλος» (Beauty) and «Άρης» (Mars). The inimical reaction of its inhabitants to the visitor’s good willed incomprehension will be appeased by Mimon’s landing to a 4th one, where he meets someone eager to become his lifelong understanding friend and companion. DRAC’ s performance was visually strong, with masterful use of puppets and demanding electronic music with vocals performed on stage. It was an achievement of ripe all round artistry.
Also at the Minor Theatre we enjoyed another highlight of this edition. Theatre Lampion presented «The Happy Prince», in an
adoption of Oscar Wilde’s original by Radek Malý, distinguished Czech poet, specialist in Czech Studies, translator, pioneer in live poetry and poetry for children, and Matej Forman, actor and writer. They enriched the plot with two additional characters as mediators of the original’s message for a performance that strikes a happy medium in the combination of puppets and actors on stage. Forman also directed and signed the atmospheric scenery, sensitively lighted by Jan Černohorský. With actors forming a well integrated, interactive ensemble and with quality original music by Daniel Wunsch, executed with flair on stage, this was children’s music puppet theatre of the most serious order, a treat for adults as well.
We wish the same importance had been accorded to music in Vratislav Šrámek’s adoption of «The Bartered Bride» by Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), the Czech national opera par excellence and an international masterpiece in its own right, composed in a folk-like, readily accessible idiom. And that not as an encouragement of a certain educational policy, in any case irrelevant to independent theatres as this one, but from genuine conviction, especially since Otakar Ostrčil, incidentally the conductor of the opera’s first complete recording (1933, originally on a set of 15 gramophone records [HMV AN 801-15], later transferred to lp by Supraphon [1016 3201-03 G, no longer available]; cd transfers on Naxos Historical [S.110098-99] and Russian Compact Disc [RCD70041]), was one of the two musicians involved in the foundation of the Puppet Theatre Arts Education in Prague, back in 1914, as stated in «The magical World of Puppets», a beautiful 2013 edition of the Hroudin Puppet Theatre Museum, generously handed to us during our informative visit there. So, in spite of Smetana’s appearance in person and as a puppet on stage of Minor Theatre, his music came in too sparsely and in between the narrated story, otherwise enacted with conviction and skill by actors and musicians of the 66 years old Puppet Theatre Ostrava alike.
In the same frame of performances though, we were enthralled by the freshness and enthusiasm of student formation «The Czechoslovakian Sticks» with their purely micro – puppet play «The Smallest of Sami», making much out of literally very little and very small. Witnessed in direct proximity it was a revelatory and moving experience ignited by youthful passion. We regret our reduced comprehension for «Emil», a joint production of an apparently interesting Grand Guignol spectacle, due to lack of English subtitles, but we enjoyed «Spa», also presented in the other main venue of the Event, Theatre X10, an alternative theatrical space middle in Prague. The production, by «vi.TVOR» free-form collective, draws humorously on experiences of the director and her grandmother from working in such institutions and was enacted with conviction from actors and 3 young and talented brass musicians on stage. In the same venue we enjoyed the humorous and tender «Zuma» by the versatile Continuo Theatre, founded in 1995, whose members managed to relish genuine, uplifting yet deep rooted scenic magic.
Of more historically focused interest proved Brno based Líšeň Theatre’s «Bound by Grass», drawing on oriental figures and wisdom, and «Go for it, Honey», in a free, contemporary restitution of baroque practices. Last but not necessarily least and in their special way, as targeted to children, «Animal Carnival», freely drawing on Camille Saint-Saens’s composition by Barbora Látalová & comp. (presented at the Ponec Dance Venue) and, especially «Me, You and That» (Minor Theatre), aiming to very early age babies and infants, splendidly conceived and executed by Studio Damúza (Karolina Křížková and Andrej Lyga), exercised their special appeal. All in all a rewarding and in many cases illuminating experience , full of insight and graced by warm hospitality!