The stage was set for an evening of magic and wonder. The empty wheelchair and blank screen at the rear of the stage suggested anything was possible. What eventually unfolded certainly left me in awe, but not for the right reasons.
As expected the puppeteers did a thrilling job of bringing the puppets’ static bodies to life. As I watched two or three puppeteers at work I could swear that the puppet was more alive than they were. It was as if the puppet had inherited the life-force of the puppeteers. The motions of the human body, from an old grandmother to an energetic little girl, were precisely mimicked, giving the puppets an unnerving air of consciousness. The non-human characters such as the antelope and the figure of death were also beautifully brought to life, creating sentient beings out of wood and metal constructions.
Where the play fell hard and short was in its narrative. The moment the narrator first bellowed out that it was the beginning of the play, and proceeded to list a number of clichéd metaphors for beginnings, I felt the first prickles of dread for the decadent self-indulgence that was to come. I tried to limit it to a criticism that the play moved too slowly or that I was somehow missing the point, but there’s no denying that the production has a fatal flaw. At every point it is either trying too hard to make meaning or the action is completely stagnant. The play is never allowed simply to roll along. Where there should be a series of maybe five key moments, Ouroboros is almost always at a key moment. Everything is emphasised to a point where the suspension of disbelief is stifled. It’s impossible to just let one’s imagination run wild and as such the stunning artistry of the puppeteers is undermined by the over-exaggerated detail of the story. There is no rest for the audience, just a series of relentless ‘meaningful moments’.
It would seem this production rides the coattails of the Handspring Puppet Company’s Tony award-winning production, Warhorse. Perhaps it’s a case of the Oscar curse – most ‘Best Actor’ or ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award winners seem to follow their success with a really dire film.
After waiting years to see a real live production by Handspring I was sorely disappointed. At times magical and bursting with precise realism, these moments are not enough to save the production. Moving from the pretentious, to the overly meaningful, to the utterly banal, Ouroboros never quite knows what it’s doing. It holds its finger crossed in the hopes that audiences will be drawn in by the company’s previous work. My final thought? I remain an avid fan of the company, but this production should not have left the rehearsal room.
Ouroboros ran at the Baxter Theatre from 1 -11 June 2011.