Retro Review: The Puppets (2009)

The Puppets is essentially an ambitious social critique of modern society and the capitalist mentality that drives it. The story revolves around a Master Puppet maker who creates a puppet without strings, creating the puppet’s soul with a magical music box. Ben – the puppet – is a unique personality but is perceived as a unique product by most of the people who encounter her and eventually even her creator wants to destroy her in favour of soulless puppets that can be mass-marketed. The societal commentary comes through with the symbolic significance of the puppet applying to each of the characters who are trapped, not in control of their destiny and ultimately controlled by another higher force.

As an original musical the script was complemented with an interesting blend of song. The orchestra sounded wonderful and it was a special treat to see them in the under-utilised orchestra pit. Working with the music was a strong vocal cast – with most characters getting a chance to shine on stage. Although channelling the “musical genre” into new territory is always commendable, perhaps the continual breaking into song could be seen to disrupt the social commentary of the script. It would be interesting to see an edited version of this production with less song and more focus on the interaction between the characters. Some of the most engaging parts of the performance were the interactions between Nanny and Miss. Jin; Mr and Mrs. Dhou; and the two girls reading a story.

Most of the performers had a good stage presence and seemed to be enjoying the show. I especially enjoyed the onstage chemistry between the Wonton King (Sail Zhang) and the Cobbler (Vincent Yim) who provided some well-timed comic relief as well as strong performances. Sara Hung also played Ben with a delightful innocence that was captivating. As a non-Mandarin speaking audience member, the sur-titles were easy to read and it is testament to the production values that The Puppets was accessible and enjoyable for the entire audience.

All the action occurred in a beautifully stylised setting. Jason Mooi’s set designs provided a streamlined backdrop for the action. The Factory scenery was particularly impressive, yet such complex scenery comes at a cost with the transitions leaving a lot of dead time in the performance. Working out a way to cover this for the majority of this time would help to keep the momentum of the show at a higher level – although of course through the run the scene changes will naturally quicken.

Director Jia Hsien Liao appears to have had many ideas for the show, but some of them could have been developed further theatrically. For example, when the audience first encounters Mr. Jin he is seen only in shadow as a looming corporate presence swivelling menacingly in his chair. This was a very powerful image – yet the excellent symbolic representation of power was undercut when he actually appeared on the stage in the next scene and was a merely a man in a suit. The power/control dynamic of the work may have been strengthened if he remained in shadow – pulling at the puppet strings.

The Puppets is a worthy part of the Mudfest11 program as it deals with the idea that in some situations there are no hidden spaces to hide away from the fact that you are not in control and we all are puppets.

Review written for Union House Theatre Semester 2 2009 - as I said, this is retro!