BWW Reviews: Puppet, Music and Dance Combine in Aurora Theatre's Innovative Take on THE SOLDIER'S TALE

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The puppet and its master are one. Gracefully and poetically, they move together. The puppet's face remains still, but seems to convey a hundred emotions. The puppeteer's face changes with the puppet's character, mimicking what the character feels. Yet the character has another master. The Devil has made a deal with this character and will manipulate him like a puppet until he owns him. 

No, this puppet's name is not Pinnochio, and his master is not Gepetto. Prima ballerina Muriel Maffre controls Joseph the puppet in Aurora Theatre Company's innovative production of "The Soldier's Tale," which follows a soldier and his deals with the Devil and includes music by Igor Stravinsky (known for "The Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird Suite"). 

The mastermind behind Aurora's production, co-director Maffre came up with the idea to use a puppet for the soldier's character. Maffre becomes the puppet for this production, also transforming into the princess character the soldier falls in love with during the second half of the show. Ironically, the mastermind also has a part in the one flaw of this production. Maffre's princess costume includes pink tights, a white top and a see-through skirt. The pink draws unwanted attention to the lower, back part of Maffre's body and distracts from her one dance in the show, in which she gives audiences a small taste of her many talents that made her a principal dancer for San Francisco Ballet for several years. The dance uses the small space of Aurora Stage well, but that small stage also limits what Maffre can do and makes for a less impressive dance, especially with such a poorly chosen, distracting costume. 

The rest of the costumes, however, are romantic and colorful. They draw attention, too, but in a positive way. The Devil and the Narrator wear long coats that fit their characters roles in the story, and the Devil's costume changes a bit throughout as he takes on different disguises. Each time he enters, his face is a bit greener. By the end of the play, his true nature is revealed in full as he dons a horned dragon hat and a face painted completely green. 

Maffre wears a long, blue dress and cap for the first half of the show as she controls the puppet gently and with ease. Her facial expressions give life to the puppet. The two blend so well that the puppet becomes very real to audiences. The Narrator, played by L. Peter Callender, lends his voice and facial expressions for the puppet, stepping in every once in a while to help the puppet play its fiddle. Callender possesses a golden, rich voice that one could listen to all day. He leads the story with great presence. Joan Mankin has quite the presence, herself, as the Devil. Her crazy, fluffed out, curly hair and random movements combined with her changing character voices command the stage. Callender and Mankin must speak on beat with the music every once in a while, and each time they seem one with the music, almost singing.

Stravinsky gives his music a modern feel with the discordant, clashing notes common in Avant-Garde music. Although it does not work well as a stand alone piece of music, Stravinsky's music for The Soldier's Tale fits the story he wrote it to accompany perfectly. He draws from various influences, including jazz music, and uses percussion to add character and sound effects to the story. 

Usually played by a seven-piece orchestra, the music has been rearranged for four instruments in Aurora's production: the piano, clarinet, violin and percussion. The scaled-down music fits the small auditorium, which seats only 150. Three sides of the narrow stage are surrounded by seats, while the one other side includes a platform for performers to use and on which two of the orchestra members play from. A thin, see-through curtain with an image of a village drawn on it sets the scene. One pull out table and a chair are also used in addition to a select few props, including the book that tells the future, which the Devil trades to the soldier for his fiddle. But the Devil does not know how to play the fiddle and convinces the soldier to come home with him for three days to teach him to play. When the soldier returns home, three years have passed and his fiance has married another. Feeling sad and hopeless, Joseph moves forward and uses the book to gain fortune, but cannot find happiness. In a game of cards with the Devil, the soldier wins back his freedom, but the Devil curses him, and when Joseph attempts to return to his homeland with his wife, the Devil takes him away.

It's a rather depressing ending for such an inspiring and artistic production, and the soldier's fate feels unjust. The soldier didn't know he was making a deal with the Devil when he traded away his fiddle, and he didn't appear to know about the Devil's curse. Joseph is no Faust. He finds no redemption, and he never knew he was trading away his soul rather than a fiddle. The work's supposed anti-war themes also did not come across in the production. The story leaves audiences with a lot of questions, but it also inspires listeners to be thankful for what they have and encourages them to realize that wealth and fortune do not make a happy man the way family and small, but important possessions do.

Co-directed by Maffre and Tom Ross, Aurora Theatre's production of "The Soldier's Tale" strongly coveys this message through its innovative staging and a beautiful puppet. Lasting just over an hour with no intermission, every minute of this wonderful show delights and intrigues. Music, dance, drama, a top notch cast and creative team... "The Soldier's Tale" has it all. 

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The Soldier's Tale

Directed by Muriel Maffre and Tom Ross

Based on Igor Stravinsky's 1918 work

Book by C. F. Ramuz

English Version by Donald Pippin

Based on a concept by Muriel Maffre

Aurora Theatre Company

Now Through Dec 18

http://www.auroratheatre.org/

Photo by David Allen. The Devil (top, Joan Mankin) spies the unsuspecting Soldier (c. puppeteered by Muriel Maffre), as the Narrator looks on in The Soldier's Tale

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