We Love Arts: Petrushka

Basil Twist's production of Petrushka at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo credit: Richard Termine.

I’ve lost my heart to a clown.

It took less than an hour to be seduced by his madcap ways, his shining eyes like fiery coals, pleading for my adoration as he leapt over the stage – hovering magically, springing about with elastic grace.

Too bad he’s in love with someone else. She doesn’t deserve him. Oh, did I mention he’s a puppet? That’s probably a deal breaker too.

It’s a testament to the puppeteers’ skill that even during a post-performance demonstration of what goes on backstage, I still didn’t notice them. I tried, but they infuse the puppets themselves with so much life that it’s nearly impossible. That’s the power of Basil Twist‘s production of Petrushka. Words like joyful, exuberant, and humorous all spring about the mind like the puppets themselves, in perfect symbiosis with their masterful manipulators.

It’s inspired by the famous Ballet Russes production of Stravinsky’s score. That original clown was brought to life by the brilliant and damaged Vaslav Nijinsky, and this puppet Petrushka has enough nods to iconic images of Nijinksy’s performance and others in the Ballet Russes canon to please ardent balletomanes. Hauntingly beautiful from the beginning, it’s also a quick night of theater that enthralled the few children in the audience and took the rest of us back to those happy, pure days ruled by imagination.

Since this is a limited engagement at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (part of the Basil Twist Festival D.C.) closing on March 25, I’ll be blunt: go see it. 

Basil Twist's production of Petrushka at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo credit: Richard Termine.

Petrushka‘s score is performed live by two twin pianists, and it’s a joy to hear Stravinsky’s music interpreted by Julia and Irina Elkina. First a prelude of sonatas lulls the audience, accustoming us to the puppetry and the small stage with an almost elegiac world of simple shapes. Once Petrushka properly begins, the archetypes of the moor, the ballerina and the clown are introduced as marionettes before the explode into life-size, dancing their puppet hearts out in full exuberance.

Or rather, the puppeteers are dancing their hearts out, their presence alluded to by the puffy floating hands of the onstage puppet master. Puppeteer made puppet, absurdly perfect. There are just too many magical images to note – even the word magical doesn’t seem a cliche, as Twist’s production restores the word and the emotion behind it.

It also reclaims the final moment of Petrushka to be one of joy (rather than mocking revenge as in the Ballet Russes production), as the puppet clown escapes from the proscenium’s strict confines with such wonder than the entire theater feels full of happiness. As your heart follows what your mind knows is just an illusion, everything suddenly seems brighter, more hopeful, truly beautiful.

Basil Twist’s production of Petrushka performs through March 25 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines), Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-547-1122.

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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