Pinocchio may have wished to be a real boy, but Basil Twist’s puppets have the best of both worlds. They are all too human, with souls that burn bright as jewels. But they are also impossibly graceful and balletic, executing astonishing arabesques and leaps that hang in the air like unspoken longings.
Mr. Twist brings artistry, artifice and antic humor to Petrushka, perhaps best known as a character ballet created by Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes in 1911 and danced by Nijinsky, and subsequently by dance greats Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Featuring Igor Stravinsky’s rousing score (superbly performed here by identical twinned pianists Julia and Irina Elkina), Petrushka was originally based on Punch and Judy-style puppet shows performed during Shrove-Tide fairs in St. Petersburg. The ballet’s setting is a marionette show starring a flirty Ballerina, an exotic and studly Moor, and the harlequin Petrushka, poetic and yearning, much like a Russian Pierrot.
Petrushka rails against isolation and imprisonment by the puppeteer (unseen except for puffy white hands, like Mickey Mouse hands gone amok), but he is also trapped by his love for the Ballerina. When the Ballerina visits his Spartan quarters one night, Petrushka, in his excitement, bumbles the encounter. He crumples to the ground, defeated, as we segue to the Moor’s lush chambers. He reclines on cushions and deftly slices a coconut in mid-air with his scimitar—tipping the shell to pour the contents down his golden throat. The Ballerina slinks in and seduces the Moor with her languorous arches and dainty pirouettes.
Petrushka interrupts the tryst and the enraged Moor chases him through the carnival, finally catching up with him and plunging the sword into his back. Petrushka falls in a heap of fabric and wood. As the snowfall covers his lifeless body, his soul springs free—jubilant and wild.
Mr. Twist brings this tale of manipulation and desire to life using the Japanese technique of Bunraku, where nine nimble puppeteers dressed and hooded in black velvet maneuver the puppets’ movements against a black backdrop. And what movements they are—running the gamut from dance steps a prima ballerina would kill to execute to breathtaking small touches like wagging eyebrows, glittering glances and coquettishly batted eyelashes.
You can’t take your eyes off the main characters, but there are other puppet pleasures, such as hands playing accordions, drums and balalaikas, the appearance of a circus bear represented by only the frightening image of claws and teeth, and the spinning bright lights of the carnival attractions.
Less compelling are the interludes where the music is interpreted by a series of geometric shapes that twirl and twist, but don’t really add any nuance. They reminded me of the “Fun with Music” feature from the old “Mickey Mouse Club” TV show.
Bring on the puppets, who wind their way into your heart with such delicacy and skill you don’t mind if there are strings attached.
Basil Twist’s Petrushka
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 55 minutes with no intermission