“Undefined Fraction” is more than just a puppet show

by Hailey Nuthals

Lifes a Dream 4 - Vanessa Schonwald
Via La MaMa

The words “puppet show” often conjure images of the Muppets and cute, fuzzy creatures who quip and romp about. What the La Mama Puppet Series and Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company put on, however, was anything but. Their production of “Undefined Fraction,” a reinvention of the 17th century play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca “Life’s A Dream,” was a puppet show, technically, but not like one ever seen before.

There were puppets, true enough, but what one noticed immediately was the lack of dialogue and abundance of darkness. The only words spoken came from pre-recorded sound cues of a woman uttering eerie sequences of words like “pain,” “fate,” “misery,” and “destiny,” and from three instances of puppeteers dressed in all black clothes with masks reminiscent of not a few different horror movies that would sing in three-part choral harmony lines that might have been read by a narrator in a more traditional interpretation of the play. The stage was lit by some blue overhead lights and frequent glowing orbs, or occasionally square spotlights for dramatic effect.

The plot, altered a bit for the production, focused on the life of one Segismundo (played by NYU Tisch ’13 graduate Chris Rehmann), the son of the king of Poland, prophesied to kill his father and bring terror to the kingdom. As a protection against the prophecy, the king locks up Segismundo from birth, leaving him high away in the mountains with a warden to raise him. When the imprisoned prince is of age, his father relents and lets him out to see if he will prove dangerous enough to fulfill the prophecy. When Segismundo goes on a rampage, the king places him back in the tower, drugging him and convincing him it was all a dream. Any other events were hard to discern from the lithe dancers’ silent movements.

Throughout the performance, a small band compensated for the lack of dialogue. It was very percussion heavy, relying primarily on a drum set and some large chimes, though occasionally a mournful trumpet or organ could be heard. All the musicians – including the singing puppeteers – were incredibly talented, and the atmosphere of a dreamlike state was very well enforced. Hanging over the band, wavering between impossible to look away from and just another piece of scenery was a giant hand, nearly the size of the entire musician’s corner, whose fingers could move when manipulated by strings controlled by another puppeteer. The fingers wavered constantly, and one got the distinct impression that the hand of Fate was presiding over the performance.

The artistry was undeniable but perhaps, in the end, unreachable by a viewer who was not prepared. All the talent in the world can appear aimless without context.

The La Mama Puppet Series has closed for the season, but La Mama still has kids’ puppet programs and other productions going on through the 19 of December.

Hailey Nuthals is a Staff Writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com

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