Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Cendres (Ashes)
Plexus Polaire @ National Puppetry Festival 2017
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Maria de Buenos Aires,and Don't Dress for Dinner


The Arsonist
Photo by Kristin Aafløy Opdan and Claire Laroux
Cendres (Ashes) is a searing drama based on the true story of a spree of arson in a village in southern Norway that consumed ten structures—homes, barns and others—in the course of a month in 1978. A baby born at the end of that spree grew up to be Norwegian writer Gaute Heivoll, whose semi-autobiographical novel Before I Burn, published in 2014, blends the intertwined story of his own life with that of the arsonist who inflicted terror on his hometown. Ashes—the translation of the play's title, Ceres—has been devised by Plexus Polaire, a French-Norwegian puppet theater, and was presented on the first night of the National Puppetry Festival, being held on the campus of Concordia University in Saint Paul.

Ashes has no spoken dialogue, but tells its story through images, movement, light, and a chilling sound score that continues throughout the hour-long play. Heivoll is played by a human actor, who we first see struggling to overcome writer's block and exorcise the fires that branded a mark on his infant brain and haunted him ever since. After numerous failed starts—marvelously presented by having typeface words appear projected overhead as he writes on his computer, and vanish as he backspaces—he travels back to his homeland to face the scenes of the crimes and speak with survivors about what happened, and its lasting effect on them. It is not clear if this is a trip actually taken, or the journey is in his mind, nor does it seem that it would make a difference in the outcome.

All of the other characters are puppets, including the arsonist, who early on is seen toting red cans of gasoline and gleefully pouring it over the landscape. These are amazing puppets, finely sculpted with lifelike features, detailed clothing, and textured hair, and so subtly handled by the Plexus Polaire puppeteers that it was difficult to tell early on that they were not, in fact, live actors. The first puppets we see are scaled down in size, but placed in the back of the stage, and lit so that we might think them real people who appear smaller due to the perspective—trick of the eye, which wonderfully seduces the audience into this scorched world. Later, there are human-scale puppets, assembled as a sort of silent jury, casting their moral judgement upon the arsonist. Some puppets represent specific people, such as Heivoll's parents and infant self, and a fireman. Others form more or less a chorus representing the community as a whole.

A fierce wolf chases Heivoll, a manifestation of the demons that have never stopped tormenting him. An elk is dragged in, brought down by Heivoll's hunter-father. When the Elk's chest is sliced open, the arsonist appears inside. There also are puppet houses seen in flames from the inside, then being engulfed and soaring in the air, literally going up in smoke. The tale rolls out with stark images and a lot of symbolism, the meaning of which is not always clear, but which nonetheless makes an impression that guides the audience through the landscape of Heivoll's nightmare and the arsonist's dream.

All of the puppets are handled, remarkably, by just three cast members, Aitor Sanz Juanes, Viktor Lukawski, and Andres Martinez-Costa. At times there are more than three puppets on stage, posed or moving with complete authenticity. The ability of these three gentlemen to manage so many details, including physical contact between the characters that is always presented with grace, never betrayed by any clumsiness or by the frozen features of their faces, is admirable. In fact, while those carved features are unchanging, a slight tilt of the head or straightening of the neck can create the effect of different expressions.

The stage is, for the most part, drowned in darkness, with just enough light to see Heivoll and the puppets in any given scene, and leaving the hard-working black-clad puppeteers visible as shadows, never intruding on the sense that the puppets are the actors. Impressive realistic effects create plumes of smoke from which characters sometimes emerge or are concealed.

Cendres (Ashes) is not a play for children, given its troubling theme and images. It certainly demonstrates the power of puppetry as an adult art form. With its striking imagery, artfully crafted puppets, and the emotional power of Heivoll's story, this is a performance that will remain etched in memory for a very long time.

Cendres (Ashes) played public performances on July 17th and 18th, 2017. The National Puppetry Festival 2017 continues through July 22, 2017, with public performances each day and a free "Puppet Fun for Everyone" celebration on July 22, 2017. Concordia University, 1282 Concordia Avenue, Saint Paul, MN. Public performances - $15.00. For performance and event schedule and tickets go to www.puppeteers.org/national-puppetry-festival-2017/.

Conceived and Directed by: Yngvild Aspeli; Director:; Technical Directors: David Lejard-Ruffet and Vincent Loubiere; Production Manager: Claire Costa; Scenography: Carlotte Maurel and Gunhild Mathea Olaussen; Puppet Makers: Polina Borisova, Sebastien Puech, Yngvild Aspeli, Carole Allemand, and Sophie Coeffic; Costume Design: Sylvia Denais; Soundscore: Guro Moe Skumsnes and Ane-Marthe Sorlie Holen; Light and Technical Management: Xavier Lescat; Outside Eye: Philippe Genty and Mary Underwood; Co-production: Cie Philippe Genty and Figurteatret |Norland

Cast: Aitor Sanz Juanes, Viktor Lukawski, Andres Martinez-Costa


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