It’s not usually a compliment when a reviewer says, “This performance is best enjoyed with alcohol.” But the kaleidoscopic works of puppeteer Basil Twist are an exception. The swirling shapes and puppet sex are just more enjoyable after a beverage or two.
Besides, try saying with a straight, sober face, “I missed the NCAA tournament games Friday because I went to a clown-puppet ballet.”
Basil Twist’s Petrushka, running through Sunday at Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre, is the first of four shows to open in an area-wide Basil Twist Festival. I’d say city-wide, but the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center has also gotten in on the action, hosting a run of Twist’s under-the-sea opium dream, Symphonie Fantastique. Twist’s work is appealing across generations and genres, and Petrushka is a great example: The clown-puppet ballet was originally commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center, a Minneapolis art museum, and a piano festival in Kalamazoo. Twist was tasked with adapting the original ballet, with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Fokine, for puppets. The irony is, of course, that the three main characters in the ballet were already puppets; they had just usually been performed by people.
Good people, too. Vaslav Nijinsky created title role of a forlorn clown puppet rejected by a beautiful ballerina (Tamara Karsavina) in favor of a dashing Moor. In the 1911 original, the ballet opens with a Shrovetide fair—-that is, the Russian equivalent of Mardi Gras. Now, here’s where that tumbler of Stoli may come in handy. If you know the ballet, you may spend all 55 minutes of Petrushka doing a comparative analysis of the plot and the ballerina marionette’s movement. But the show is probably more fun if you’re not scouring for an anatomically correct arabesque penchee.
The performance opens with several movements from Stravinsky’s Sonata for Two Pianos. Seated at Steinways on opposite sides of the stage are twin pianists Julia and Irina Elkina. It’s a prelude of sorts, with different shapes featured in each movement. A fleet of rectangles become a rotating asterisk, crescents become little slivers of moon darting across the a night sky, etc. The geometric forms reappear between scenes in Petrushka, prompting the six-year-old next to me to remark, “Oh no, not the shapes again!”
Perhaps when she’s older, she can have a drink and enjoy watching those shapes spin. But the actual puppets—-the ones that were supposed to represent people playing puppets—-she seemed to like very much. As revealed in a lights-on demo after the show, nine black-clad puppeteers manipulate the three marionettes. There’s a lively divertissement featuring Petrushka’s sit-squat Russian jumps, the Moor’s booty-shake, and the ballerina’s delicate bourées. But it’s the Moor who impresses her most, so in the next scene it’s off to his boudoir, where Petrushka rushes in just as the best puppet sex since Avenue Q is about to commence.
Ah, unrequited puppet love. Things don’t end well for Petrushka, but there’s a beautiful snow scene and a very kid-friendly denouement. All good puppets go to heaven. Or at least, to a theater’s rafters, where they can wave at the fans down below.
The show continues through Sunday, March 25 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. $15-$40. shakespearetheatre.org. (202) 547-1122. The Twist Festival runs through April 22 at various venues.