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'Petrushka': What a Twist!

New York-based puppeteer Basil Twist is in town for a couple months, for what is being billed as the Twist Festival D.C.. The Shakespeare Theater Company kicked off the event last night with the first performance of a revival of Twist's puppet version of Stravinsky's Petrushka. Basil Twist, of course, is only the director of a company: the performance is carried out by a team of ten puppeteers, choreographed to the music performed by Julia and Irina Elkina, the twin Russian-American pianists who helped create the work a decade ago. Stravinsky's ballet score is only about a half-hour long, so the Elkina sisters introduce it with the composer's Sonata for Two Pianos, a piece that was first composed (thirty years later than Petrushka and in a rather different style) for one piano and then morphed into a twin-piano work. The challenge of the stage arrangement, which separated the two pianos on either side of the puppet stage, made coordination here and in the ballet score quite difficult, something that the Elkina sisters realized ably but not without some flaws. Twist's choreography for this piece was without any narrative, a series of vignettes formed by floating shapes, like a Malevich suprematist painting set in motion, with each subsection of the middle-movement variations separated by a few moments of silence to allow the shift of tableaux.

The story of Petrushka, created by Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois, hinges on the oppression of the title character, a rather pathetic puppet of straw and sand, by the puppet-master (Charlatan) who controls him. Petrushka, unlucky in love, is killed by the handsome and violent Moor, his rival for the affections of a pretty Ballerina -- all under the direction of the Charlatan, of course -- but death sets Petrushka free from the Charlatan's control. Instead of dancers, here we have actual puppets, given particularly vivid life by the puppeteers, who wear black costumes and hoods to hide them as they animate the puppets in the glowing lighting, designed by Andrew Hill. The puppet-master(s) is shown only as a set of floating hands, and one cannot help but think that Twist missed an opportunity here to enhance the meaning of the work by himself portraying the Charlatan, confounded by the charming escape Petrushka makes from the theater. The movement of the puppets is more naturalistic than traditional marionnettes, but the larger puppets take up much more of the performance space, too. After the performance, we were treated to a special demonstration of the Russian dance scene, with the lights up so that we could see the balletic coordination of the puppeteers, three per puppet, as they wove in and around one another.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, Puppeteer Basil Twist’s ‘Petrushka’ (Washington Post, March 19)

Celia Wren, Puppeteer Basil Twist’s first retrospective comes to life in Washington (Washington Post, March 10)

Emily Cary, Basil Twist's magical world (Washington Examiner, March 14)

Patrick Folliard, A dash of Basil (Washington Blade, March 8)

Joan Acocella, Doll Houses (The New Yorker, April 21, 2008)
Twist's vision is impressively cinematic, with some sequences covered by more abstract imagery, like flashing streamers of cloth, all carefully matched to motifs in the music. The Shrovetide fair scenes are less than panoramic, with a few scenes of Kremlin-like onion domes, bouquets, musical instruments (played by those phantom hands), and chickens repeated over and over. Most of the evening scene, with music for dances of various groups at the fair, is given over to the Moor's lengthy pursuit of the fleeing Petrushka (even Petrushka needs a montage, apparently). Although there were plenty of young people in the house last night, parents will have to decide for themselves if some of the imagery -- Petrushka getting a scimitar in the back, the Moor's malevolently glowing eyes, and a particularly terrifying circus bear (all teeth and claws) -- is too much for small children. It all bodes quite well for what is reportedly Twist's next project: a puppet version of The Rite of Spring.

This production of Petrushka continues through March 25, at the Lansburgh Theater. Tickets: $22.50 to $50.

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