By Lance S. Belville
February 15, 2010
You don’t have to have Ethel Merman belting, There’s No Business Like Show Business” in your ear to be struck by the magic that can happen when you walk into a live theatre for a performance by small “actors.” They can pack a potent punch. Rio’s first Festival of Animation Theatre packed theaters full of wallops all last week. Animation theatre means, actually, puppet theatre.
Rio’s world-class PeQuod Animation Theatre hosted the proceedings that included two companies from Porto Alegre and visiting puppet troops from Argentina/Chile, Holland and Portugal.
The puppets came in many shapes, sizes and forms from highly articulated puppets manipulated by three and even four actors to tiny glove puppets the size of a child’s sock.
The most complex and interesting work was that presented by Rio’s PeQuod, the host company. Their play, THE ARRIVAL OF LAMPIO IN HELL, traced the last days of the Brazilian bandit and folk hero, Lampião, his ambush by federal “macacos”, and inevitable descent into hell, mostly seen through the eyes of a less-than-enthusiastic recruit to the band of leather-lidded cutthroats. This play may well be touring around Brazil in coming months to a theatre near you and so bears some further description.
LAMPIO may be no kids’ puppet piece, as some of the other work on display is not either, though much of it is suitable for the wee ones. LAMPIO is a highly complex theatre extravaganza actually exploding on stage in the hands of five highly talented actor/puppeteers and the off-stage voice barrel baritone of the great Brazilian actor, Othon Bastos. The central design concept is that the characters in the play are actually large-sized clay-appearing figures based on the work of the Nordestino clay master, Vitalino.
The several dozen puppets in the cast, though appearing as very large clay reproductions of Vitalino figurines, are actually made of rubber and plastics and have a number of different articulation systems within. Some can actually walk forward propelled by only one puppeteer. Some can bend, twist and sit; others have articulated arms as well as legs. The effect is the clay of Vitalino comes to vibrant, and often violent, life.
The flesh and blood actors manipulating the “clay” actors are dressed as Nordestino peasants of about 1938, the year Lampião was gunned down in a hail of federal lead without returning fire. They cry and emote the voices and breath and anxieties of the figures in their hands in such a way that the actors live and actors “clay’ become as one.
The opening has the live cast laboring in a smoky furnace room, pounding and kneading the clay. The door of their furnace flings open and they begin to carefully remove the newly fired “clay” actors. It is a striking premonition of the Hell which awaits Lampião within the hour.
Once the “clay” Lampião is killed and lands in hell, in a dizzyingly dynamic trop du teatre the play now moves in an entirely unexpected direction. I won’t spoil it by describing it.
The visual direction of PeQuod founder Miguel Vellinho is nothing short of a master work and his script, along with Mario Piragibe, much of it based on news reports of the time is at turns satirical, lyrical and chillingly violent. This one may not be for the kids.
Two very different but equally enchanting Brazilian companies, both from Porto Alegre, represented the Gaucho theatre of animation.
COMPANHIA TEATRO LUMBRA is a shadow puppet company growing out of the Indonesian tradition but working with distinctly Brazilian themes. In SACY PERER-A LENDA DA MEIA NOTIE, two shadow puppeteers race us through a breathtaking trip based on Monteiro Lobato’s tiny terror tale.
The second team of Porto Alegre puppeteers, COMPANHIA GENTE FALANE, showed a 4-minute pocket masterpiece called CIRCO MINIMAL. They present their work in a tiny tent where five or six spectators crowd in, sit and watch a pint-sized puppet extravaganza taking place literally inches from their noses. Like PeQuod’s work, this is a one-of-a-kind theatre experience!
The Argentina/Chile entry, EL CHONCHN TEATRO DE MUECOS, featured two pieces acted by diminutive glove puppets. OS BUFOS DE MATIN pays clever homage to the great comics of the silent era. And then, in JUAN ROMEO & JULIETA MARIA, the Porteo pranksters give the Bard from Stratford on Avon a run for his money. Along the way they find time to kid Rio foibles and Brazilian politics. And the sex scene where Romeo and Julieta get it on for the first time is probably worth the entire price of admission. But it may merit the Shakespearian send-up an R rating. On second thought, it might be a way to introduce the wee ones to the deliciousness and duties of marriage.
The Portuguese company, CENTRO DRAMATICO DE VORA, arrived with BONECOS DE SANTO ALEIXO, a collection of biblical tales that, according to some spectators, probably belong in a church basement somewhere (see header image).
The most baffling entrant in MITA was the Dutch entry, DIRK, from Amsterdam’s ELECTRIC CIRCUS. It consisted of a silent man dressed as a homeless person pushing his shopping cart through various parts of Rio. I couldn’t understand the point of this one, nor could anyone I talked to who had also seen him. But the naughty Argentine puppets had great fun with this one in both their show. Twice they improvised their joy at finding Brazil so wealthy it could now import its homeless people from developed countries in Europe. Ouch, that hurt! Back to the drawing boars for DIRK.
Brazil has a long and happy association with puppet theatre, now christened “Animation Theatre,” by the people who produce it. It is far from kid stuff and probably worth a visit the next time some of it shows up in your town. Big kicks await your from these small actors.
Previous articles by Lance:
They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee In Brazil – And It’s Going Fair Trade!
Brazil: Then And Now Rondonia
Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play
Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films