Perceptive Travel - An Aria for Creepy Puppets

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An Aria for Creepy Puppets
By Shari Caudron
Photos courtesy of Czech Marionettes.



After getting spooked repeatedly by marionettes, Shari Caudron puts fear aside in the and checks out "opera for dummies" in Prague.


It started back in 1978 when I saw Magic, the Hollywood thriller starring Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist whose wooden dummy, "Fats," slowly goes crazy and embarks on a murderous rampage. The movie itself was terrifying. But it was the incessant airing of the TV commercial that really disturbed me. "Abracadabra, I sit on his knee," chanted the wide–eyed, high–voiced dummy while staring into the camera. "Presto–chango now he is me. Hocus pocus we put her to bed. Magic is fun. We're…dead."

Okay, maybe it doesn't sound so spine chilling in print. But at the time, the movie and its ad were menacing enough to instill a life–long fear of ventriloquists' dummies, marionettes and other small, hand–painted facsimiles of human beings.

jester

I imagine myself rising from a warm bed at two a.m. to let the dog out only to encounter a Charlie McCarthy–type character seated serenely at my kitchen table in the moonlight. "I'm glad you're awake," he'd say, his stiff lower jaw clacking shut as his eyes dart, Kewpie–like, toward the gleaming butcher knife gripped in his white–gloved dummy hand.

For years, I've been able to get through most days without obsessing about the sinister potential of puppets. But recently I was in Prague, in the Czech Republic, where marionettes are part of a quote–unquote long and rich tradition.

On my first day there, while walking through the narrow, cobblestone streets, I passed several shops selling the stringed puppets. Row upon row of still, expressionless marionettes hung limply from the walls, their hands and feet suspended in mid–air. There were Rabbis and chefs and kings and witches, all of them silently beseeching passersby to give them life. I shuddered.

Angela looked at me. "They creep you out too, huh?" she asked.

I nodded as I scurried past the shops.

That night at dinner, Angela and I discussed our jointly held fear of marionettes and other inanimate human beings. Sipping our wine, we talked as if we were discussing something semi–rational, like politics. "The problem I have with them is their inability to reason," Angela explained.

Yes, I agreed. That was one of their deficiencies.

"I mean, when they are attached to human beings, they're fine," she continued. "It's when they're left to their own devices that I have trouble with them." Angela, too, had seen the ads for Magic.

After dinner, we walked through Prague's old town and noticed, in the corners of lighted store windows, colorful posters advertising a production of Don Giovanni by the National Marionette Theatre. Instead of sleek ads for cigarettes, or posters promoting the latest Hollywood action film like you'd see in other European cities, Prague was all about puppets. "No way," I proclaimed. Angela agreed, thus securing her position as my favorite traveling companion.

* * *

The next day we were led on a walking tour of the city by a Czech woman who alternated her talk between English, for us, and French, for the other couple on the tour. We'd stop in front of a Gothic cathedral and she'd spend 20 minutes talking excitedly with the French couple about, I assumed, the history of the church. Her hands would make wide swooping circles overhead, like she was describing the general craziness of church leaders during the Middle Ages. The French couple would not their heads in rapid agreement. "Oui, oui, oui," they'd say, as if they were glad to have finally found someone who shared their passion for religious history. When it was time for the English version, the guide would turn to us and say something along the lines of: "This is the Teyn Church. Its tower dominates the old town. Let's move on."

At one point, as I waited for the guide to finish a lengthy French narrative of the Charles Bridge, I spotted yet another marionette shop. This, in itself, was not unusual. What made this particular shop stand out was that its exterior speakers were broadcasting Billie Jean by Michael Jackson at levels loud enough to cause the last remaining Communists in that city to pack their identical, government–issue suitcases and flee up the Vltava River. On the street in front of the shop, a small Pinocchio marionette in yellow pants was break–dancing, its red feet clomping on the cobblestones at the behest the young salesperson controlling its strings.

"Look," I exclaimed before I knew what I was saying. "How cute!"

Angela stared at me as if I'd broken some unspoken covenant of the anti–marionette society. Then her eyes traveled to the break–dancing puppet. "They are less threatening when they dance," she conceded, if a bit reluctantly.

With the edge taken off, we soon found ourselves admiring the range and artistry of marionettes available for sale. We discussed how marionettes could still be popular in a city that has survived the Habsburgs and Communists, and now boasts sushi bars and Internet cafes. There must be something to this marionette business, we reasoned.

Our defenses crumbling, we scrambled for ways to keep our disdain of dummies intact. "The marionettes must just be for tourists," we scoffed, as if we weren't short–term visitors ourselves. When that didn't work, we tried snobbery, ranking marionette theatre on the same cultural stratum as a monster truck rally.

But the more we questioned the allure of the puppets, the more we became fascinated by them. Over a beer and goulash that afternoon in a low–ceilinged Czech restaurant, Angela turned to me. "You know, I think we should see a marionette show, just to see what the fuss is about." I agreed, feeling strangely excited in a birthday–party kind of way.

Back at the hotel we asked the desk clerk to make reservations for the following night. While she cradled the phone and waited for the theatre to answer, I sought confirmation for our decision. "Is it a good show?" I asked, eyebrows raised like a toddler seeking praise for a good deed.

The desk clerk sighed. She'd obviously heard this question a few thousand–million–jillion times. "Yes," she said, the word ending in a slight "zee" sound. "It's nice, if you like the Don Giovanni music." Somehow, I wasn't reassured.

* * *

We arrived at the theater early the next night. Although advertised as a "beautiful hall decorated in Art Deco style," what we encountered was a sad, dimly lit theater with limp, red velvet curtains and green plaster walls the color of split pea soup. The walls had been gouged in several places, leaving white, dusty scabs. In the lobby, a pale young woman stood beneath a clothesline of cheap plastic marionettes, hoping for a sale.

When it was time for the performance to start, instead of subtly dimming the lights or ringing a low chime like they do for performances in New York, the National Marionette Theatre of Prague sounded something akin to a school bell. Its insistent metal clapper reverberated painfully throughout the lobby. Startled, I didn't know whether to head to my seat, dart out the door for recess, or alert the captain that the submarine was taking on water.

The show began, and the first marionette to appear was Mozart, who was dressed in pink satin with white ruffles at the neck and sleeves. He had curly silver hair that looked slept on, and his round wooden face bore a slight resemblance to Barbara Bush. As he jerkily "conducted" the imaginary orchestra––the real music was on tape––the other puppets made their appearance on the small stage. Controlled only by strings, they moved haltingly, like they were walking across a rope bridge in high winds. It was going to be a loooong night.


Performance at the National Marionette Theater

As the production got underway, my snootiness kicked in. The backdrops were painted in a style that could best be described as Scenery 101. I could see the thick hands and cleavage of several of the puppeteers. How unprofessional was that? I felt like I was watching a fifth–grade talent show where at any moment a little Indian girl would be tied to the stake while her parents clapped their enthusiastic approval. Most unsettling of all was that the marionettes' faces didn't move. At all. Don Giovanni maintained the same painted–on, non–committal expression regardless of whether he was seducing the peasant girl Merlina or being engulfed by flames for his evil misdeeds.

And yet, despite myself, within a few short minutes I was smiling, a silly what's–the–harm–in–this grin that lasted the entire performance. I don't know if the grin appeared when I realized that puppeteers are supposed to be part of the act. Or when I realized this particular production of Don Giovanni was intended to be a comedy. Or when the Mozart marionette drank too much wine and fell asleep, loudly knocking his little wooden head on the edge of the imaginary orchestra pit.

Regardless, it dawned on me that the point of marionette theatre is not to convince audience members that the puppets are real in an animated Hollywood kind of way. The point was to give people an enjoyable, low–tech excuse for listening to great opera.

When the performance was over and the puppeteers emerged for their applause, it was clear from their pink cheeks and broad smiles that they took immense pride in their art. I stood and clapped like a stage parent.

* * *

Don Giovanni

As we walked back to the hotel after the show, Angela said, "I'm glad we're not like those people who don't try new things because of fear or because they think something is beneath them."

"Me too," I said, gazing at the gold reflection of the city's lights in the river.

"Sometimes, it just takes learning about something to appreciate it," she reasoned, sounding a bit like the host of a children's television show.

I concurred, thinking of all the times in my life I've passed up opportunities because of fear, snobbery, or pre–conceived notions. I thought about how often I've let closed–minded assumptions color my enjoyment of an event. I thought about how foolish many of my long–held, but unexamined, fears and judgments really are. Maybe Magic had been so scary because I was 18 when I saw it and, frankly, a lot of my life was tinged with terror at that point. I was on the verge of adulthood, after all––a status I had no idea how to manage. And still don't.

As we neared the hotel, Angela made one final comment about the show. "You know, those puppets didn't scare me at all."

"Me either," I said, secretly wondering if I'd have time at the airport to purchase a souvenir marionette.




Shari Caudron is the author of Who Are You People? and What Really Happened. Her work has appeared in Best Women's Travel Writing, the Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. Her previous story for Perceptive Travel, When in Jordan, is featured in the anthology More Sand in My Bra. Visit her website at www.sharicaudron.com.



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