Polish puppetry offers thrills and chills

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Joel Swanson contributed to this article.

On the evening of Oct. 28, the Lang Performing Arts Center stage was shrouded with darkness and a single light shone on the stage. Sitting on a bench, a man slumps his shoulders and wrenches his face in an expression of desperation. A puppet, emerging from the shadows, mirrors his anguish. When it comes to the Wroclaw Puppet Theater from Poland, puppets aren’t just for kids anymore.

The Last Escape (Ostatnia Ucieczka) is written by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. In the fantastical play, Joseph, an old retired man trying to escape his solitude, discovers a corner of his room where time and space are warped. In this corner, Joseph is able to travel into his childhood memories and an alternate universe.

The first sign that Joseph has escaped reality is when he is startled by books that are animated and flit, chirping, through the room. Traveling first to a sanatorium, Joseph discovers that his dead father is alive and merely sleeping to save his life energy until he can be revived fully. From that first surreal situation, Joseph travels both to mythical and realistic settings in his past, from collecting pensions at the pensionerÕs office to cowering under the watchful glare of the schoolmaster.

Joseph’s world is populated by eccentric characters as well as exaggerated figures from his past such as his mischievous schoolmates. An unsettling mood prevails as sinister men with bowler hats appeared sporadically and shove Joseph around while Dr. Gotard with his peculiar diagnostic methods outfits JosephÕs father in a medieval contraption.

The small stage was converted to a variety of scenes, including a sanatorium and JosephÕs childhood school, with the use of a pair of wheeled doors or the clacking of an abacus. The dark cloth panels that disguised the puppeteersÕ movements and the dramatic lighting stripped the play of realistic details and fully thrust the viewer into SchulzÕ world.

Both puppets and actors contribute to the surrealism of Joseph’s world. The tilt of a head or the tender patting of a hand is composed with a subtle twitch of the strings. JosephÕs wizened father is one character played by a wiry and weary puppet. The jerky movements of the puppet paired well with the heavy motions of an elderly man. Throughout the play, the puppeteers expressed their own personalities by infusing their puppets with emotive nuances.

The play, acted completely in Polish, ran simultaneously with a projection of English subtitles. The puppet show was at times hard to follow due to the slightly confusing subtitles and the nonlinear plot structure. The cyclical chronology of the play leaves the viewer unaware of what is happening to Joseph and in fact, where he is left at the end of the play. However, in a sense, the literal plot of the production is largely irrelevant to a story that was heavily steeped in mood and imagery. The protagonist’s relationship with his family reflected a profound sense of alienation and miscommunication similar to that is endemic to modern society. In this sense, the play conveyed a universal feeling of longing for human contact and the past very similar to those of Dostoevsky or Flaubert.

Perhaps the puppeteers were truly manipulating the collective pathos of the audience, pulling our strings as well as those of the puppets. After all, as some would say, we are all merely puppets, controlled by forces not of our making.

Photographs are not available at the request of LPAC staff.

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