Not surprisingly, like most people who find themselves in the theatre world one way or another, I once considered pursuing a career in acting. However, there were multiple aspects to the actors’ lifestyle that simply didn’t appeal to me. The physical, mental, and social demands were beyond my capabilities. That being said, there was one part of the process that, from beginning to end, I was never good at and knew it. Movement. Gestures, facial expressions, and so forth simply evaded my grasp in shows. In short, I looked terrible onstage. Perhaps it was this struggle to comprehend natural poise onstage that has made me truly appreciate fluidity of movement in actors. True, the hope is that one’s actions onstage are so seamless that one never loses immersion with the production to notice these choices, but that smooth movement still catches my eye. To act naturally composed is a trial enough for some individuals, so imagine the challenge that comes with maintaining composure while playing the role of another? Better yet, imagine that same composure flowing through your limbs to convincing control the life of a puppet onstage.
Atlantis: A Puppet Opera is an original production by Ethos in association with the Vortex Repertory Company with original music and libretto by Chad Salvata. The opera follows the tradition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle / epic mythology by telling of the rise of Atlantis, the journey of Prince Helios to slay the Kracken, the city’s war with another nation, and the inevitable downfall and infamous sinking of the city. The cast is entirely populated by puppets that range from minuscule to stage-spanning in size, all of which controlled by a size able, black-clad ensemble of vocalists and puppeteers occupying the small stage.
Given the puppet theatre medium one must accept the presence of multiple actors onstage controlling the “real” actors, but even so it was impressive to see how many people were able to perform onstage without crowding the workings of the show. Most of the major characters were controlled by two or three puppeteers, one of whom doubled as vocalist. Furthermore, most of the main puppets followed Connor Hopkins’ rod puppet designer predominantly featured in last year’s production of Frankenstein. The notable alternatives to the main models were found in Prince Helios who was the only character who had complete control of all of his limbs, and the Kracken which consisted of four swinging, tentacle-clad puppeteers, and a central, monstrous mouth upstage. The spread of the Kracken emphasized the enormity of Helios’s task and certainly aided the epic myth vibe, and with the width of its movements I was honestly surprised no audience members in the front rows were struck by the tentacles. However, Hopkins and Melissa Vogt’s best creation has to be the poster-puppet for the production, Queen Merra, a reinterpretation of mermaids that replaces the traditional fish tail with four flowing tentacles that flowed with the unseen currents of the ocean and seductively beckoned to Helios and his men. It was around Merra’s introduction that I realized the flow of the puppets onstage. Aquatic flora gently drifted with realistic smoothness, mini mermaids swam in the air with believable ease, and of course, Merra’s three-person movements demanded my attention. However, the moments that made me visualize the puppets as realistic the most, much like inFrankenstein, was when they’d interact with one another. Particularly, hand and arm movements such as caressing one’s face, hugging, covering one’s mouth, etc. felt striking realistic, given the short, golden-skinned individuals who were “acting” these motions. Despite the quality of most of the puppets, some needed a little more work. A lot of the mini puppets felt comparatively silly next to their full-sized counterparts. Particularly, the perpetually flexing mini-Helios atop the battleship Invictus looked a tad humorous, especially during the odd visual gag of having the mini Helios fist bump the full-sized Helios (a moment which really broke the tone for a few seconds). But all in all the puppets maintained a cohesive design that reflected the gilded glory of Helios’ tragic quest. If I have one small nit to pick it would be the Atlantis ‘A’ emblem adorned on Helios and Queen Solstra. It’s an incredibly minor complaint, but the big letter A on each of them was a little off given the rest of the production’s design.
Among all of the puppetry that occurs onstage my only major concern was a matter of focusing the audience’s attention. Not on the play as a whole, there are no worries there. What I refer to is capturing the audience’s gaze upon one segment of the stage during certain scenes. True, some scenes properly reveled in the enormity and multitude of the actions onstage (i.e. battling the Kracken), whereas some of the smaller scenes often caught me focusing on one part of the stage when I should have been looking at another. Oftentimes this occurred because the main character puppets were singing/discussing center stage while the actions they discussed were occurring to the side, which provided stronger visuals at the time. This most likely is a matter of blocking moving attention away from where the action is occurring, but none of these moments ever broke a scene for me. They simply caught me off-guard once I realized what was going on.
Behind these puppets there needs to be some voices, and Atlantis certainly provides in that regard. Being a Puppet Opera the cast is universally dramatic and booming in their vocals. This is further aided by the decision to have the singers’ microphones project their voices with added reverberations. It’s an intriguing choice given the humble size of the venue, and yet it never detracted from the production. If anything it only bolstered the mythological/quest vibe. Most notably, Justin LaVergne (Prince Helios) commanded attention whenever he sang (or boomed might be the better word), though Jonathan Itchon (High Priest Magus) also has a mighty pair of lungs to show off throughout. As an ensemble, the cast melded their voices flawlessly, allowing for a single sound to emerge from the stage rather than a discordant medley of disconnected voices. The only vocalist I occasional had trouble with was Michelle Haché not through any fault of her performance, but rather that her operatic voice (as operatic voices tend to do) was a little difficult to understand at times.
Given the opera medium in which this tale is told I will offer you the same advice that was offered unto me before entering the theater: read the plot synopsis in the program first. The plot, as is often the case in myths and operas, is grandiose, over-the-top, and hasty, all of which supports the style of story Salvata and director Bonnie Cullum are trying to tell. I advise you to read that synopsis so that you may enjoy the music and visuals to their fullest without having to check the program mid-show to follow along (as I was guilty of doing once or twice). Better to enjoy the spectacle than worry about the plot, because let’s be honest that’s not why we’re here. As for the music, its style and tone serve the piece as a whole though I can’t say that melodies have stuck with me. Again, much like the plot, the songs all works perfectly well in the context of the production, and that’s as much as we can ask of the piece. Atlantis isn’t a deep production, but it’s a fantastic spectacle and an impressive piece of synchronicity between a large group of performers and their countless moving props and visuals. It certainly gets my recommendation for anyone interested in quality design and alternative. Just watch out for those tentacles if you sit in the front row.
Atlantis: A Puppet Opera continues playing at the Vortex Repertory Company until the 24th on Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm.