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I spent an hour or so puzzling over high-arty things to say about Dogugaeshi, the mesmerizing lo-fi puppet show that’s capping off this spring’s festival of creations by the New York puppeteer Basil Twist, but then I realized I was getting it all wrong. Because what you need to know most is that this is some trippy shit.
No, really: Imagine a room full of people, all moderately high and looking through the same giant kaleidoscope—that’s basically what’s going on up at Studio Theatre these days. The fact that it’s a painstakingly handcrafted kaleidoscope, built in homage to an obscure branch of Japanese stagecraft and operated with mathematical precision by a team of four—that’s the high-art part. But don’t let talk of antique theatrical techniques or vanishing Asian puppetry traditions put you off: Dogugaeshi is funny, and surprising, and moving, and like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The sense that you’re in an altered state? Well, that’s if you let the show work its will on you. The room is dark and small, but after the curtain is drawn—and drawn again, and then drawn yet again, in a signal of what’s to come over the next hour—it becomes clear that the walls of Studio’s fourth-floor black box aren’t big enough to contain Twist’s imagination. Think sliding paper screens, artfully configured to represent landscapes, or seascapes, or sometimes (in one brief and gripping sequence that suggests an abiding awareness of nature’s power) both at once. Think elaborate geometrics, gorgeous florals, majestic dragons and tigers and such, erupting and winking and giving way to more, as a live samisen player (the intensely focused Yumiko Tanaka) weaves angular melodies against a recorded track.
Think of a small room that, with a sliding whoosh, grows seemingly larger, and then larger still, until somehow the forced perspectives of Twist’s layered screens have built a palace whose walls stretch to an impossibly distant horizon. Now imagine that edifice decaying before your eyes, suffering the ruin of time and nature. (The human and the elemental are in constant contention in Dogugaeshi, which is no small part of its strange power.)
Playful (a white fox cavorts among the screens at times, dancing at one point to his own signature melody), precise (especially the warm lighting plot, whose fluid cues work in tandem with the music and the moving images to prod the audience), and ultimately (yes) profound, Dogugaeshi seems both ancient and modern, a salute and a celebration. But it’s the farthest thing from stuffy homage: Basil Twist is a certifiable genius, and his fey energy animates the evening, making it glow with something I can only call a kind of theatrical magic.