|The Imaginary Beasts get lost in Maeterlinck's web.|
Perhaps no reputation has fallen faster - or further - than that of Maurice Maeterlinck. A century ago he was thought to all but personify highbrow theatre. He was awarded a Nobel Prize; had a clutch of high-minded hits (Pelléas and Mélisande, The Blue Bird); and over the course of his career inspired a treasure trove of early modern music.
And then he was completely forgotten.
In fact I can't think of a production I've seen of Maeterlinck in years - his name probably only survives piggy-back, as it were, on Debussy's, whose landmark score for Pelléas and Mélisande has entered the standard repertory (although you could argue the opera itself has not).
So I was intrigued to see that Matthew Woods and his Imaginary Beasts had programmed a revival of The Death of Tintagiles (at the BCA through November 17). My first thought on hearing this, frankly, was that if anyone in town could revive Maeterlinck, it would be Woods - he's Boston's only home-grown theatrical visionary. A Woods show is always a strange kind of tableau vivant mixing the surreal, the sophisticated, and the whimsically superficial into a kind of staged soufflé that feels simultaneously innocent and worldly. And perhaps due to his consciousness of his own singularity, Woods is always drawn to the esoteric and the eccentric; I mean who else would have programmed their past few seasons with Gertrude Stein, Lorca, Witkacy, Ionesco, and Maeterlinck?
Still, Woods doesn't quite manage to breathe theatrical life into Tintagiles. Like much of Maeterlinck, it's intentionally static, only half-revealing a bizarrely fraught situation: young Prince Tintagiles is threatened by the Queen (his grandmother), who waits for him, hidden in her castle like some enormous spider; his sisters attempt to protect him, but all is in vain; in the end, he's murdered (offstage) by Grandma as his siblings scream for help.
That's pretty much it. Maeterlinck does spin from this slim premise a heady atmosphere of fatalism, as well as an associated mood of masculine impotence; he's a bit like Kafka with an Oedipus complex. Unlike Kafka, however, he doesn't fully develop his themes - short as it is, Tintagiles gets repetitious, and it relentlessly resists any apparent dramatic pay-offs.
Woods does illuminate brilliantly a patch of aesthetic ground he shares with the playwright, however. Maeterlinck was so opposed to what we think of as the life's breath of theatre - risk, spontaneity, emotion - that he sometimes said he preferred marionettes to actors. (In that way he's a bit like Robert Wilson and other avant-gardists; perhaps his impulse has survived, even if he hasn't.) And Woods himself has occasionally been called a puppeteer - his highly-determined form of stage "play," which sometimes amounts to choreography, certainly isn't for every actor.
So it was intriguing to see this director had followed Maeterlinck's instincts and cast a marionette as Tintagiles - and what's more, the supporting cast often dons masks and behaves as if they were (life-size) puppets, too. What all this amounted to was a curious kind of symbolist bunraku in which puppets were manipulating puppets - and everyone was not only negotiating their own strings, but a literal onstage web apparently spun by Maeterlinck's Shelob-like monarch. Woods even brought his action to an added level of disassociation by often separating the voices of characters from their bodies; the theatrical experience itself was thus a kind of sensory web.
Still, despite these resonances, the piece felt slightly inert; whatever psychopathology drove Maeterlinck's doomy sense of foreboding here, I'm not sure Woods actually shares it. Certainly the cast - Kendall Aiguier, Mauro Canepa, Molly Kimmerling, Amy Meyer, Christopher Nourse, Amy S. West, and particularly Kiki Samko - did their best to put over a building sense of terror, and the piece does prove an exquisite formalist object; like all Imaginary Beasts shows, it's gorgeous, with exquisite pre-Raphaelite costumes from Cotton Talbot-Minkin, and evocative lighting and design from Christopher Bocciaro and Brian Choinski (the evocative puppets are by Elizabeth Breda and Bill Hawkins). But despite its high finish, the production never quite grabs you. We get the puppets, yes - but we have no idea what, or who, is pulling the strings. I admit that this gap is actually Maeterlinck's intent. The trouble is that's probably why he has been forgotten.