From the instant they take the stage, the three puppeteers of London’s Blind Summit Theatre have you in their thrall. But not by sleight of hand or string, just sheer mastery of the most basic stagecraft: the power of gaze, silence, anticipation. In simple black shirts and pants, with nothing but a table between them and us and a limp puppet dangling from artistic director Mark Down’s hand, the trio offers blank, confronting stares, punctuated by only the tiniest sideways glance. But that’s enough to unleash audience laughter — our response to unease and uncertainty about what exactly we’re to expect.
That uncertainty, that relinquishing of the myth that we’re in charge here, is the magic of theater, the lure of drama, the gift of Spoleto. When the curtain opens and the actors (and/or puppets) appear, we submit to their tale and escape from ours. Here at the Emmett Robinson Theatre the chuckles continue nonstop for the next hour-plus, and though the audience may never be entirely sure about what to expect next in this clever mash-up performance, we know we’re in the absolutely talented hands of true wizards who put everything — improv, puppetry, Old Testament refresher course and comedic brilliance — on the table.
I loved how ingeniously the Blind Summit team (the chiropractor-bound Fiona Clift, who spends the hour and half bent over manipulating the puppet’s feet, and Tom Eisner, the puppet’s “right-hand man,” joining Down, a Daniel Craig lookalike with Bond-worthy British wit) teaches us to see the elements that bring an inanimate object – a cardboard and cloth puppet, or basic folding table – to life, all while delivering a delightfully irreverent riff on the Moses story and a primer on the ancient Japanese art of Bunraku puppetry.
The three elements are focus, breath, and fixed-point movement (yep, basically yoga for puppets), but the extent to which these puppeteers have mastered them is mind-boggling. Witness Moses (the puppet) struggling to walk against gusting God-driven wind, or jogging on a ‘running machine’ (charming Briticism for treadmill) or dancing, complete with decidedly non-Deuteronomic pelvic thrusts.
If you’re still wondering what in the hell I’m describing, that’s cool. In fact, that may be the point. Please, go see for yourself. “The imagination can be very dangerous,” Moses/Down says at one point in the production. Dangerous because it lets us see differently and invites us to turn the tables on what’s real and what’s not, or what is and what could be. It can also, like Moses freeing the Israelites, deliver us from the shackles of our mundane lives. Amen to that.