Friday, September 17, 2010

Stringing up the puppetmaster

Sometimes you really want to like a performer, despite his or her failings.

But sometimes, try as you might, you just can't.

I pondered this problem while watching Blair Thomas's new show, Hard Headed Heart, at the Charlestown Working Theater last weekend (which once again is offering a gutsy season, btw).  I wanted to like this show like hell.  Thomas is brilliantly versatile - in his "puppet shows" (somehow the phrase doesn't do these conceptual gambits justice) he plays most all the roles, and provides the narration, musical accompaniment, and sound effects too - along with just about everything else.  When he's not banging on a drum kit, or puffing on a tuba, he's expertly manipulating an array of evocatively-designed marionettes, and doing all their voices.  I've rarely seen a performer work harder.

And the "shows" themselves are marvels of ingenious design.  Each of the three pieces in Hard Headed Heart came with its own theatre - drama machines on wheels, if you will, equipped with in-house orchestras, stereo and projection systems, and all manner of props, tricks, and trap doors.  These pint-sized productions - and the contraptions that embody them - are almost relentlessly imaginative, and redolent with ghastly, Grand Guignol atmosphere.

But unfortunately the maestro himself, Mr. Blair Thomas, isn't a particularly warm or engaging presence - indeed, he plays puppetmaster with the kind of cold-blooded condescension that always kills things at the A.R.T.  (You can almost hear his type cackling, "Pathetic earthlings . . . don't you know Death is always pulling the strings???")  But alas, I'm afraid warmth - or at least humanity - is what's required to put over the crude rough-and-tumble of the first piece on the program, Lorca's "The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal," (at top), with its long stretches of violence and its hearty embrace of lust; without it, the Punch-and-Judy cruelty just gets tedious.

A similarly snide distance undermined "St. James Infirmary," a meditation on the folk and jazz standard about the heartbroken drunk who has just seen his girl "stretched out on a cold white table" at the eponymous infirmary.  She was "so sweet, so cool, so fair,"  he moans, but the song is not only an elegy but also a defiant cry against death, with the singer's demand that at his own funeral, "a twenty-piece jazz band . . . raise Hell as we go along." Thomas's macabre version (at left), however, hid no such poignant, life-affirming punch; indeed, it merely got creepier as it went along, with the girl's skeleton taunting the grieving singer with her red, fuck-me high heels.  "I'm so blue my favorite hooker's dead," seemed to be the only message of this version.

Thomas's final number, based on Wallace Stevens's epochal "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" was likewise reductive - it seemed to want to shoe-horn this open-ended classic into the doomed-romance template of the rest of the evening.  Still, its melancholy accompaniment - Ben Johnston's String Quartet #4, which seems to slowly encrypt the hook from "Amazing Grace" - was gently appropriate.  And the piece's imagery - four back-lit scrolls on which panoramas were slowly, softly assembled - engendered something of the poem's quiet sense of meditation and ontological disruption.  Best of all, Thomas didn't actually "perform," and hence there was no metaphorical snickering to mar the piece's truly evocative moments.  More, please - and less.

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