By Ryan Hugh McWilliams
Rarely do I have my mind blown, but today I am still putting the pieces back together. Last night I visited HERE Arts Center, a small two theater venue in west SoHo that presents multidisciplinary performances, dance pieces, experimental theater, visual art, and my personal favorite, puppetry. Their Dream Music Puppetry Program, under the Artistic Direction of puppeteer Basil Twist, showcases amazing works ranging from marionettes to shadow puppetry and continuously presents some of my favorite theater experiences in New York City. You may have even seen some of their work in the annual Village Halloween parade, which they’ve been collaborating with since 1996, creating large scale puppet pieces like the giant white spider that crawls up and down the Gothic clock tower of the Jefferson Market Library on 6th Ave and 10th Street.
Their latest show, Dark Circus by French duo STEREOPTIK, is an eye-melting, jaw-dropping work that combines live music, shadow puppetry, live illustration, and hand drawn animation to present a scripted piece that is never twice the same. Centering on a morbid circus whose motto is, “come for the show, stay for the woe,” the piece contains a multitude of circus acts that with the shuttering of the Ringling Bros. may be your only chance to witness again in the United States. The dark portion of the circus comes when the trapezist, lion tamer, human cannonball, sword thrower, and horse trainer all seem to die at the end of their performances. Each death makes you laugh out loud and the visuals leaves you gasping.
The puppeteers Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet met while playing in the rhythm section of a brass band and you can quickly see that their rhythmic sensibilities influence their work as each brush stroke and puppet movement are intricately timed with the music. The performers are situated on either side of a large white screen where the puppetry work is projected. On the left side, Jean-Baptiste is surrounded by a keyboard, bass guitar, synths, drums, and an overhead projector. On the right side, Romain is surrounded by another overhead projector, a large drawing board, buckets of black sand, pens, charcoal, paint, ink, and chalk that are all used as he draws out intricate landscapes that transform into circus crowds or interact with live animation. The effect t is mesmerizing and I attempted not to blink so I wouldn’t miss a thing.
In addition to the stunning live illustration, two-dimensional shadow puppets are used as well as a small fish tank with water that creates a supremely trippy backdrop for the sword swallowing scene. (I am attempting to be vague here so as not to spoil anything.) The visuals are all in black and white and create a noirish photograph effect that is upended in a grand finale of color and giddiness that provides a wonderful contrast to the ironic macabre of the prior scenes. The show runs through Sunday and then heads back to France for another short run. It continuously drives me nuts that the best shows always have the shortest of runs. I implore you to go see this is if you have the chance. You’ve never seen anything like it and will never view puppetry the same again.
STEREOPTIK’s Dark Circus runs through Sunday, June 4 at HERE Arts Center. Click here for tickets.