In September, 1994, a few members of the Connecticut Guild of Puppetry traveled to Dobb's Ferry, NY, to take advantage of the generous invitation extended by Bruce Robbins, of the Masters School, to witness a performance of "Teatro Hugo and Ines."
I am not qualified to write a "review", but I am qualified to be an audience, so I did make some notes. I felt Hugo & Ines exemplified those qualities lacking in so many of the performances I saw this summer. It was the most entertaining performance of any I've seen recently, and certainly the most thought-provoking. We're still talking about it!
It's amazing how such a low tech, limited prop, no word, no set, two-person show could pack such a wallop. Did I mention no ego?
I think Hugo and Ines epitomize what it means to be an artist. They explore their medium, (themselves), discover its strengths and limitations, and determine if and how it can effectively give voice to their ideas. They have the courage to reject those attempts which might compromise their art and integrity as performers, and work diligently to refine those pieces that have merit. They know when to stop.
Hugo Suarez, from Peru, is a self-taught mime. He learned his craft by watching videos of Marcel Marceau. He traveled to Italy where he honed his skills by performing in the streets. Ines Pasic, a classical pianist from Bosnia, met Hugo in Italy and studied mime with him. They have been together for nine years and have performed as a team for six years. They have appeared at many festivals, and through-out the world.
I'm concerned with the lack of puppets in so called "puppet" productions, the use of puppets as mere props, and the all-too-visible performer asserting himself and "up-staging" the puppet!
Bil Baird said when a human performer and a puppet share the stage, the puppet cannot compete, especially if the performer is "on".
The artistry of Ines Pasic and Hugo Suarez proves that when the puppets and humans are on equal footing, sharing works! Using only their feet, legs, knees, hands, (wonderful hands), and few props, they conjured up a series of visions and improbable, yet totally believable characters. The genius, mastery, and understanding of the ART of puppetry, was most evident when Hugo and Ines performed their hand creations. Though in full view, they were overshadowed by the beauty of the hand images, using one, two, three, or four hands to produce fleeting glimpses of wildlife, "avis-mirabile", and other wonderful creatures. One of the most incredible hand creations, was of a young man mourning the loss of a lover. His reverie, a haunting, lyrical, and sensual female figure, floating in a pool of light, was brought convincingly to life by Ms. Pasic using only her hands and a small attached head. With the song "Yesterday", by the Beatles, as background, the transition from young man to female dream-image and back, was seamless, instant, and complete. It took a moment for me to realize what had happened. The wonder of it! Well timed and executed lighting was critical to the piece.
The style exhibited by these two puppeteers was impressive. Style defined here as: mastery of the medium, attention to detail, follow-through, ruthless editing, and including the audience.
The first piece presented a stage picture of bentwood chair and coat rack, supporting a hanging coat and bowler hat. Ms. Pasic entered, sat down, thrust her arm through the sleeve of the coat, (still on the rack,) pulled on a white glove, and brought the garment to life. Her inquisitive and flirtatious nature got out of hand and she soon became the manipulated, instead of manipulator, in a piece that was amusing and dark. Ines was brilliant as herself and in bringing an equal, (and ultimately, dominant,) being to life. (Was there any question there were two thinking characters on that stage?) Mastery of one's medium in the case of Hugo and Ines is, in performance, an absolute and happy fact. The controlled contortions of Ines Pasic, lying, as Lady Bracknell said, "...in a semi-recumbent position.", were necessary to accomplish the creation of two characters: a left foot, snap-on nosed, shirt wearing, stocking-capped "male", who romances a right foot "female", and her attractive leg, with obvious relish; both performing their parts in the timeless gyrations of discovery, flirtation, infatuation, and dependence, told anew. The skill of Ines to empower those feet to become believable entities was, -Yes! I'm going to say it,- no mean feat!
Hugo's interaction with Ginocchio was an excellent example of the puppeteer staying in the background until his character was needed. Ginocchio, a character made up of Hugo's knee, a red snap-on nose, a shirt, and Hugo's hands, played his ukelele, while passers-by dropped tips into his hat. Even with Hugo sitting directly behind him, Ginocchio was alone; his persona powerful enough to hold the stage on its own. Only when Hugo leaned in to empty Ginocchio's hat of his hard-won earnings, did his presence assert itself. He feigned ignorance of the theft, and quickly retreated into the darkness. (He "retreated" by turning "off" as a performer.) When Ginocchio realized that Hugo was the thief, Hugo, desperate, whacked him on the head (Hugo's knee) with the ukelele, knocking him unconscious, and left him in a pile on the floor. Hugo stood, picked up the shirt, nose, hat, and ukelele and limped off with a pained expression on his face. The audience might be startled by this display of violence, but Hugo, with this clever, humorous fillip in the form of a limp, eased our concern for Ginocchio, (we knew we would see him again.) It seemed to illustrate the current cliche of "what goes around, comes around". This "bit"was a nice touch..
Attention to detail is evident through-out. In the first piece, the contrast of Ines Pasic's bare hand with the white gloved hand of the roue, was necessary. Hugo's hand, through the cuff of Ginocchio's shirt became Ginocchio's, but when he decided to steal Ginocchio's tips, he removed his hand from the cuff and then picked up the hat. Each character is made complete or believable by convention! Another convention that we readily accepted was the moving of Ginocchio's nose to the top of his head, (Hugo's knee, again) to give the effect of Ginocchio looking up at Hugo. So simple, so believable!
I suggested that ruthless editing was one of the factors that contributed to the style of Hugo and Ines. Each piece was all it had to be, no more-no less. Any good artist knows when to stop.
Hugo and Ines have the power to move us to tears. Nearly! In a touching depiction of the ravages of time, we witness the loss of youth, infirmities of old age, and the final moment of a man's life. When our once vital young man surrenders to the inevitable, he reaches up and removes his blue eyes and holds them in his hand as he might hold a pair of dice. In that instant, he is transformed, and we witness his rapid decline. Toothless, blind, barely able to stand, using his cane for support, he finally slumps into a pile on the floor. BUT, not before our empathy is rewarded, in a final burst of energy, with a rude razzle from his empty mouth. By now, you won't be surprised that the man's features were created using the hands and fingers, and "thumb-tongue", of Hugo and Ines. The marvel of it is the range of possibilities using only one's hands, snap-on blue eyes and a suit of clothes. Youth to old age, piercing eyes to wrinkled, empty sockets, engaging smile to gumming jaws, and a wagging tongue to let us know there is humor even in death. He did have the last laugh!
The final piece, using small red flashlights on a black stage was a string of surprises. As the dots impressed the retina, they became streaks of light to become complete images; a "ballet in red". I recall several animated dancing shapes and finally one figure with head, hands and two feet. This done by two people with four hands, (I'm still working on this one). The amazing thing about this piece was its clarity! This dancing figure, made up of dots of light, was complete! The control of the lights so precise that the audience could fill in the details. It was more than connect the dots. I know it's a stretch but it was, for me, a great example where "less is more"
I'm not alone in arguing that the human actor needs to be put in his place, The puppets have had enough, too! A duo which appeared near the end of the program, a jazz musician and his "Doll", made the point! This saxophone player, sans sax, but with "hip" glasses, dark shirt and white tie, used Hugo's legs as his own. His face was one of Hugo's hands, his other hand "played" an invisible sax, (or adjusted his tie when things got "hot".) His "Doll" sported a set of shapely legs, (which she shared with Ines,) a tacky wig, red boa, and VERY red lips. Her face was Ms. Pasic's hand, with help from the makeup department. The sax player tried to "sell" her with his playing, though she wasn't buying. At one point the "doll" ventured into the audience, blowing kisses. Ines, caught up in the moment blew one of her own. In that moment the "Doll" flashed Ines a glare that suggested; "I'm working this room! GET LOST!" Ines' attempt at usurping the affection of the crowd, and putting herself into the picture, was quickly squelched. The puppet had triumphed and took back the stage!
It was evident that Hugo and Ines understood and accepted their place in the stage picture; there was no room for ego. When they were "on", they related to each situation as required, and when they were "off", they were GONE! That they used no "puppets" as we know them, does not contradict my thoughts about shows with no puppets. Rather, it affirms my acceptance of divers approaches within this art form, and reinforces the argument that understanding, preparation, and style can make the difference. If I may be allowed one final observation concerning the inability or unwillingness of some performers to reach out to their audiences.
Theater is a form of communication art. Puppet theater is a form of this form in that it uses inanimate objects as symbols which are moved or manipulated in a comprehensible manner to convey or communicate a particular idea to an audience. The mere lifting and shifting of inanimate objects does not constitute puppet theater.
The manipulator must impart to the figure or object, the appearance that it has the "ability to think"- (Rufus Rose).
If we, as audience, are not allowed to empathize with the "characters" on some level, what's the point? The audience is critical. Shaw said "...the imagination of the spectator plays a far more important part than the exertions of the actor."
Hugo and Ines gave us a framework to build on, to add details from our own experience; we were allowed to participate.
With artists like Ines Pasic and Hugo Suarez around as exponents of superb puppet theater, I find it hard to believe that more, so called, "puppeteers" don't get the message.
Puppetry is, after all, a "state of mind."
Copyright Fred Thompson 1996