Thursday, 6 September 2012

Puppetry Poker Pit

It starts so innocently. Boris and Sergey are off-stage, assessing the audience and gleefully imagining the quickest way to empty their wallets. A few moments later, they bound on-stage, supported by their puppeteers and ready to entertain. The Vaudevillian Adventure has begun.

The two dastardly puppets, mysteriously eastern European in accent and origin, keep to their promises, at first. Acting as hosts and turns, they present a late night cabaret - full of adult humour, sibling bickering and a move perfect impersonation of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights video. The audience interaction is friendly, until they invite a man and a woman up to their Puppet Poker Pit.

The Puppet Poker Pit is supposed to be the chance for Boris and Sergey to fleece their marks. Unfortunately, due to follhardy bidding and their innate stupidity, the game descends into farce and deadly demons are summoned. And, although they admit that there is only a single plot moment in the entire hour, the last twenty minutes shifts the mood from drunken revelry to more serious themes, and a virtuosic display of action puppeteering.

The Adventure is a mixture of improvised humour and skillful set-pieces: when Boris and Sergey throw down, they do it Matrix style in a tightly choreographed recreation of Neo's famous "bullet-time" ruckus. But the banter with the two audience members (one renamed "The Lonely One" in possible hommage to another puppetry based show in the Pleasance) is quick-witted and sponataneous. These puppeteers know how to act and play the crowd.

Perhaps more than any other performance form, puppetry relies on the gap between what is literally on-stage - in this case, six puppeeters and two faceless puppets - and the pretended activity - high speed chases, magic tricks, injury and, finally, damnation. The Adventure elegantly exploits the gap, making Boris and Sergey aware of their puppeteers and forcing them to explain their presence. When the anti-heroes meet their respective tragic ends, this gap is enlarged, lending pathos is what is, literally, a couple of inanimate objects being thrown to the table.

The performance satisfies on several levels: the skill of the puppetry, the humour of the routines and the sudden dark finale are all impressive. Knowing nods to the artificiality of the show and sharp pop-cultural references reveal the thoroughly post-modern intelligence of the company: it deconstructs the action even as it entertains and moves. The usual blather about "puppetry not being just for children" is replaced by a new blather: "puppetry is for intelligent adults, who have a sophisticated appreciation of the form, but aren't above a good laugh."

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