A dying puppet begs for water; laughing puppets share apples and steal horses; flirting puppets fly through the air like lovers in a painting by Chagall; in the last scene, a puppet father-to-be is saved from murderous despair by the stirrings of his puppet child in the belly of his puppet wife… Oh, yes, and the klezmer clarinetist (not a puppet), crazed by the Nazis’ murder of his band and everyone in his shtetl, crawls into an earthen burrow and declares himself a badger – a badger who wants his tallis. All this in an hour and ten minutes, and that includes nine songs arranged or composed by Frank London of Klezmatics fame.
King Executioner, a production of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, is, in short, a delight. Its writer and director, Vit Hořejš, brings expertise in theater, puppetry and Slavic literature – the work is based on a novel by the Polish writer Tadeusz Nowak. The details of the plot are not the point, but here’s a short description: Two friends in a Polish village, Jasiek and Piotr, play and compete with each other just before the Nazi invasion. Jasiek inexplicably shoots himself, and Piotr is drafted during the Polish Army’s brief resistance. After seeing action – including nasty anti-Semitism from some Poles, and a more lethal version from the Germans – he returns home in despair which is deepened by the killings he carries out for the Partisans; he is only saved by the promise of new life.
While the narrative is simple, the production is marked by sophisticated and accomplished artistry. All significant parts are doubled by an actor and puppet working in tandem. This transparent arrangement lets the audience share the tenderness that the puppeteer-actors feel for their small doppelgangers. There’s a wonderful variety of puppets: while representing the twelve-foot Police Commandant in his car takes five actors, a single marionette framework strung with dozens of tiny soldiers indicates an entire regiment. The death of the clarinet player is beautifully portrayed with shadow puppets. And a puppy is played by a stuffed toy.
The stage is set by three “crankies,” hand-cranked and back-lit rolls of illustrations, effectively drawn by Theresa Linnihan, that allow quick scene changes. The last, and perhaps greatest, pleasure of the show is the music, its appealing songs about apples and horses, life and death, fully integrated with the narrative. Even though its last song tells “how everything dies,” this seriously playful musical drama comes down squarely on the side of life.
“King Executioner” is playing at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, Manhattan, through April 7th.
Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.