Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.
Leave it to Jillian Keiley and The Old Trout Puppet Workshop to contemporize Shakespeare.
When I read that The National Arts Centre was presenting Twelfth Night with puppets, I did a double-take. Not just that the actors were using puppets…Last year, Shakespeare in the Ruff performed an acclaimed version of MacBeth: Walking Shadows with puppets, too. In this NAC productions, it’s not the characters who are puppets. So too are the sets and scenery, conjuring a spirit of lively immediacy for the entire performance. Even the shipwreck of the opening scene is enacted by actors!
This takes me somewhat away from my wondering about the “why“ with puppets to the “how.” Thankfully, I’ve been able to take all of my wondering to NAC Ensemble-Studio member Paula-Jean Prudat, who plays four distinct roles in this play, and is as eloquent as she is versatile. She attributes this ingenious staging to director Keiley and Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s “deliciously magical vision in orchestrating this production. The style and use of the puppets—many of which are 2D–creates a whole fantasy-world of play and make-believe along with this very famous and 400-year old text. It seems so familiar and absurd—perfect for the summer madness of Twelfth Night.”
Ms Prudat likens this particular Twelfth Night to “an escape to a wonderland—both familiar and strange—and the theatre is that place where anything is possible.” The set and props have been created to reflect the play’s central motif of appearance versus reality. Here, the audience can see how the actors conjure the stage “magic.” They are, at almost all moments, on stage: either with puppets, as scene backdrops, or as their human selves. The effect on the performers is one of being “constantly alive and in motion.”
The four characters that Ms Prudat plays are all different: a ‘player,’ a ‘minion’ (or masked servant of Orsino’s in a full 3D puppet suit), a kissing mountain, and Fabienne, one of the tricksters who plays against Malvolio. Each requires a distinct costume or puppetry. And it’s clear from Ms Prudat’s descriptions that she’s considered all 4 roles minutely, and portrays each uniquely, according to its purpose and design. She describes her ‘player’ character as closest to herself, a neutral character always focused on the action on stage. “We all play ourselves and drive the show,” she said. “This is a wonderful part, as we players are in support of each other—that feels special to witness so fully.”
In contrast to her ‘player,’ Ms Prudat’s ‘minion’ character is a timid employee whose nervousness manifests in constant twitchiness. So much so that he literally cannot keep his feet and legs still. She likens him to a banished puppy–“terrified and wobbly.” And though she plays him only briefly, his is the most complex and larger-than-life costume — standing a foot taller than her. “My eyes are literally looking out of his collar,” she marvels, adding, “I love playing those full-bodied masks.”
Ms Prudat’s Fabienne (a feminine reimagining of Fabian) is a servant to Olivia. In Fabienne’s search for excitement, she has far too much fun at Malvolio’s expense. One of several tricksters looking to stir the pot, Ms Prudat plays her with a mischievous relish acclaimed by audiences and critics. “She is a great lover of game-playing—there are many references (as Fabian) in the Folio about bear hunts and game,” Ms Prudat muses, warming to her elaboration. “Overall, she is a goodtime girl looking to play some tricks on those who she thinks deserve a bit of retribution. She is Sir Toby Belch’s (Paul Rainville) right hand man/lady in cahoots. Part of the appeal for Ms Prudat is the “extra-wonderful” opportunity to learn from Rainville – character wise and actor wise. “He’s superb,” she enthused, “and very free and funny in his work.”
As if these roles weren’t enough, Ms Prudat also embodies (wait for it) a kissing mountain: “a joyful exploration of flirtation with another ‘mountain’ as a set piece. These mountains, disguised as a transition, are very fun to play. “I am in constant search of the perfect moment in this encounter,” she winks.
Likely, a large measure of the joy she derives from this multi-dimensional and multi-role experience in Twelfth Night is her general love of all Shakespearean plays. This love spills out with enthusiasm for one attribute after another: “the language, the text, the humour, the drama, love, conflict, comedy!!!” And “the gift of this production,” she insists, “in the way it has been masterfully brought to life–is that nothing is too precious. That is a luminous experiment as an actor—you can keep playing.” Meanwhile, the puppets bring a strong sense of “other-worldly-ness”, and “there is also specific and masterful work at hand.” This masterful Twelfth Night must be seen to be believed.
Oh, and it is seriously funny. As Ms Prudat remarks, “How splendid is that?!”
News You Can Use
What: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, as imagined by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop; directed by Jillian Keiley
Who: Audiences 13 years and older
When: running until February 6, 2016
Following the performances on Friday, February 5 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, February 6 at both 2 pm and 7:30 pm, audience members are invited to share reactions with each other at one of the NAC’s new “Talk-About-It Tables,” containing a menu of prompts to start a conversation with fellow audience members.
Where: National Arts Centre, 53 Elgin Street, at Confederation Square, Ottawa, Ontario
For information and tickets: nac-cna.ca/en/event/11626
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya