What do you do after you create an international mega-hit starring a horse?
Go for some Shakespearean magic.
That's what the director and puppet masters of the 2011 Tony Award-winning "War Horse" did for a follow-up project to their London-Broadway-touring sensation. (The national tour of the show plays Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 28 to Feb. 2.)
"We decided to follow up 'War Horse' by going for something entirely different," says Tom Morris, who was associate director at London's National Theatre when he co-directed (with Marianne Elliot) "War Horse" in 2010 after developing it for four years. "We agreed it would be folly to do a huge emotional work with a puppet as its central character. It is important to us not to repeat the recipe."
He, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company — creators of the magnificent horses in the epic production — turned to the Bard for their next collaboration and created a different look for "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The show, which features a cast of 12 actors, premiered in March at Bristol Old Vic, where Morris is now artistic director. It's , the oldest continually operating theater in the United Kingdom. The production is on stage at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S. C., with its run ending June 9.
Its next stop is the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, June 15 to June 23. The show will play the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. next year.
The puppet masters created an earlier version of "Midsummer" in South Africa that ran in 1988, but the new collaboration with Morris gave them the opportunity for a fresh take.
"There's a connection between the play's ideas of transformation in the shapes, hearts and minds of the characters and the things that you can probe with your imagination." Morris says when "the "elemental play about nature going wrong" was written during Elizabethan England times the idea of "spirit" was stronger "and we wanted to create a world where the audience might believe in fairies — and that led us to this strange world."
"In 'War Horse' we had a very strong anchor in the center of a production. That was a central experience there. Here, there are many experiences."
There are several types of puppetry at work in the production, unlike "War Horse:" with its life-scale creation.
But like "War Horse," the puppetry is more suggestive than completely natural, "They're keen on representing the whole with a part," says Morris, and sometimes these shapes shift as the character's journey continues throughout the play.
Sometimes the puppetry reflects abstract concepts such as a change of heart, he says. The two pairs of lovers fleeing Athens into the enchanted forest, carry puppet doll versions of themselves — which the characters gradually abandon as they become more "human."
Sometimes it's the "spirits" bringing life to inanimate objects. Three performers who double as the Mechanicals gather carpenters' tools — an oil can, a wicker basket, a saw and a garden fork — to collectively create the character of Puck,
For Titania and Oberon, imposing sculptural masks and a giant mechanical hand are used.
It all fits into Shakespeare's transformative, shape-shifting, topsy-turvy world.
Out Of The Puppet Ghetto
The production is sure to have an impact with the artists at Connecticut's puppet centers. The state is home to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford (running June 5-7 with performances June 15-16). The University of Connecticut has acclaimed undergraduate and graduate puppet arts programs, and is home the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. UConn also hosted the International Conference on Puppetry two years ago, the first time the research gathering has been held in the United States.
Many of the state's Tony Award-winning theaters have also used puppet arts in productions. Among them: Long Wharf Theatre's "The Long Christmas Ride Home" by Paula Vogel; Yale Repertory Theatre's "Compulsion," which starred Mandy Patinkin and which used puppetry to depict Anne Frank; and Goodspeed Opera House's "Carnival!" The hit musical "Avenue Q" was also developed as part of the O'Neill Center's Music Theater Conference. Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage, began his career with a touring puppet theater and has used puppets in many of his productions.
And what does Morris feel the impact of international success of "War Horse " has had on puppetry, usually an art relegated to children's theater and family friendly entertainment?
He first credits other puppet-centric shows, especially Julie Taymor's "The Lion King" with dramatically changing how the puppet arts are perceived in theater, But he acknowledges the success of "War Horse" brought in an adult audience.
"It does feel that a posse of puppets have broken free from their [theater] ghetto," he jokes, "and they are now marauding through mainstream theater."
Taymor is also planning on a puppet-purposed production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"I did not have the chance to talk to her before we started our production, " Morris says. "But I would love to see both of our productions do well."
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM will run June 15 to 23 at the University Theatre, 222 York St. New Haven. Running time is 2 hours anmd 45 minutes, recommended for ages 12 and above. Performances are both Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; both Sundays at 2 p.m.; Tuesday, June 18 at 8 p.m., Wednesday, June 19 at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, June 20 and 21, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $95, reserved seating. Student, youth and senior discounts available. Tickets at 203-562-5666 or 888-736-2663 (ticket fees) or in person at the Shubert Theater, 247 College St., New Haven. Information: www.artidea.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now