Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Hobbit by Théâtre Sans Fil: Not That Great, Really

Sometimes, when you take in something that's famous or has been heavily praised, and it doesn't live up to your expectations, it's hard to admit that to yourself. You want to like it, because you think you should. After all, everybody else seems to. I experienced this recently in the context of the puppet show The Hobbit by Montreal-based troupe Théâtre Sans Fil. (I daresay that if you're going to be mediocre, it's a good idea to aim your work at children, who tend to accept things the way they are and don't have extensive critical faculties.)

It was therefore lucky for me that I happened to sit down next to a certain acquaintance. Fredericton is like that. You can decide on the spur of the moment to go to the theatre by yourself, find your way to your reserved seat, and discover that you're right next to someone you know. The city is just that small.

This particular someone is the most upbeat, positive, easily-delighted human being on the planet. She loves everything. For example, I saw she had a Kobo ereader with her in the theatrre. "Oh, I have one too!" I exclaimed. "Do you love it?" was her response. And I felt duty-bound to say, "Uh, yeah," even though, really, I just like it.

But when the show was over, she said, "Well, that was fun." Ouch! Coming from her, that's some pretty damning criticism. So I feel justified in my conclusion that despite its having toured all over Europe, Asia, etc., Théâtre Sans Fil's puppet show is not that great. My friend didn't love it.

The strong point of the production has got to be the puppets, some of which are spectacular. Gandalf and the elves flounce and glitter in their flowing finery. Bilbo, on the other hand, is kind of unattractive. I wondered if his face had been copied from that ugly animated version of The Hobbit. I also wondered why he had green hair.

Another aspect of the Bilbo puppet that I found somewhat distressing is that he never got to use his legs. They just dangled. Is that world-class puppetry? Honestly. With most of the characters, this wasn't a concern because they didn't have legs. Gandalf, the elves and the dwarves were all robe people. But there's Bilbo with an obvious pair of legs and he's swishing around like a seahorse.

I should probably mention here that Théâtre Sans Fil, which means Theatre Without a String, lives up to its name: the puppets are not manipulated from above with string; instead, the puppeteers stand behind the puppets, shrouded in black, and manipulate them directly. It's the same principle that works so well in the Famous People Players shows. Indeed, Théâtre Sans Fil also makes use of ultra-violet light, and the puppets can be seen to glow in moments of low light. It all works to great effect in dark scenes, such as the one in Mirkwood Forest. Indeed, that scene is the highlight of the show. When Bilbo loses contact with the dwarves, glowing filaments appear and spin themselves into spider webs as we watch. Glowing spiders make an appearance soon afterwards, and they're pretty neat too, although they tend to cluster together in suspiciously human shapes.

In well-lit scenes, which, bizarrely, constitute most of the show, the illusion is ruined by the clear sight of people in hoods behind the puppets. One is at a loss to explain such unprofessionalism. Why did they choose to beam lights all over the puppeteers during most of the scenes? Didn't they check how it would look beforehand?

Mind you, this gaffe did add an interesting element to the dwarf puppetry. Most of the dwarves in The Hobbit are fairly anonymous and interchangeable, as suggested by their rhyming names: Fili and Kili, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur,and so forth. In tacit acknowledgement of this fact, the puppeteers often lined up a row of dwarf puppets on a pole or rod of some kind and waved it back and forth, making it look as if the dwarves were playing see-saw in the park. Well, when you could see the puppeteer's heads sticking out from behind the waving dwarf-row, which was most of the time, it looked as if there were extra, black-hooded dwarves behind the first row. Like mirrors in a dining hall, it made the dwarf entourage appear bigger than it was. Definitely what you want when you're going up against a fire-breathing dragon.

But back to Bilbo's limp legs. When doing this kind of puppeteering, it is a simple matter to control the legs, more so than with marionette puppeteering I should think. All one needs are sticks connecting each leg of the puppeteer to the corresponding leg of the puppet. Indeed, this was done with the trolls, who had legs, and Gollum, who also had huge feet and was one of the most appealing personages in the show. Yet Bilbo, the main character over whom one would expect more care to be taken, was left dangling, literally.

With the exception of Bilbo and his legs, most of the production design effort went into the puppets. The set was exceedingly sparse, consisting mostly of Bilbo's front door and a couple of big wooden things that looked like boxes with jointed lids. These two boxes were moved around to be made into everything: Bilbo's table, hills, cave openings and so on. Sometimes this worked out better than at other times. In particular, things became odd and confusing as Bilbo wandered around looking for food before running into the trolls. He approached a box, hovered over its open lid, ineffectual legs flapping, and when he got to the other side, the lid apparently tried to close on him, but he managed to wiggle out of the way. I wracked my brain trying to figure out what this alien landscape was supposed to represent. I don't recall troll country being described that way in the book.

In addition to Bilbo's leg handicap, fortunately compensated for by his hovering abilities, Bilbo is haunted by two oppressive forces that follow him around: irritating music and excessive narration. The music is the sort of relentlessly peppy stuff that gets foisted on kids. Maybe they like it; I don't know, but like it or hate it, it sometimes makes the narration difficult to hear.

As for the narration, I realize that if you want to condense a novel with a complex plot into a puppet show that lasts an hour and a half, you're probably going to have to narrate something. But you ought to refrain from narrating things that could be better expressed in dialogue. The tendency to overnarrate got underway fairly early on and worsened as the show continued. Near the end, practically everything was narrated. Thorin Oakenshield's rage at having the Arkenstone withheld from him as well as his eventual conciliation is all dispatched in one sentence. They seemed in a raging hurry to get the play over with so that everybody could go home.

Earlier I mentioned the dragon, Smaug. The Smaug puppet is a fine one, decked out in glowing ultraviolet reds and greens. Ironically, its failing is its lack of flaw. Smaug is supposed to have a vulnerable, bare spot on his left breast. This is mentioned no less than three times in the play, once by the narrator, once by Bilbo, and once by a helpful bird. Furthermore, Bard of Laketown stabs at it with a sword. (In the book, he uses an arrow, but I suppose that's difficult to pull off with puppets.)

But where is this bare spot? Nowhere to be seen, and I think this may be the stupidest oversight of the whole sadly mediocre puppet show. It would have been so simple a matter to, say, glue or sew a piece of black felt onto the left underside of the puppet. It would have shown up so well against the ultraviolet colours. But they didn't. Why didn't they? Why did they allow this confusing inconsistency to stand? My guess is that they didn't give a crap. After all, if they were interested in or capable of attention to detail, I wouldn't have found so many details to pick on and the whole production would have been much more enjoyable.

In conclusion, while some spectacular performers and troupes have emerged from Montreal, Théâtre Sans Fil is not one of them. At the end of the play, the senior member of the troupe announced that they are working on a puppet version of Weaveworld by Clive Barker. I expect it will be similarly mediocre. But the puppets will look great.

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