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By William Connor
Directed by Steffen Kreft
“Something is coming. I don’t know what it is. And I don’t know if I should fight it or welcome it.”
One snowy evening, an empty 83-room hotel on the edge of the Vastness receives a thin guest who has walked all the way from the City. Penniless, he is smuggled into the hotel kitchen where a kind cook works near an extraordinary thyme plant. He says that creativity is dying.
Described as “intensely beautiful”, “provocative and moving”, The Kitchen at the End of the World is the story of marionettes who know they are limited by the extent of their strings – even kissing can tangle them – but they crave what lies beyond their reach. A story about home, the unknown, and the courage to face everything in between.
The show captivated audiences at its sell-out debut season during the Greytown Festival 2012 and is a powerful reminder that puppetry is not just a children’s art form.
The Kitchen at the End of the World will run from
16 – 25 January 2015 in Circa Theatre’s Circa Two (excluding Monday 19 January).
There will be a preview on 15 January.
Evening performances start at 7pm and matinee shows on January 17, 20, 21, 23 and 24 at 11am.
On Sunday January 18 and 25, there will be just one performance a day, at 4:30pm.
Reviewed by John Smythe, 17 Jan 2015
ENGAGING AT HUMAN, METAPHYSICAL AND META-THEATRICAL LEVELS
It is intriguing to contemplate what makes a puppet show work a treat when you sense that if the same story was staged as a play with full-sized actors, or made as a film shot on location, it may seem rather simplistic, prosaic even.
A tired traveller, James Thoreau, has trekked from the cluttered city to a forgotten hotel “at the edge of the Vastness”; the one that houses the titular kitchen. He encounters Penelope Goldsworth, the pregnant daughter of the hotelier; Izaac, her musician-cum-bellboy boyfriend; Mr Thinley the pernickety manager; Mr Goldsworth, the grieving hotelier and neglectful father; and the kindly Cook who has sustained them from her kitchen garden even though “no-one has booked in for 100 years” – a touch of poetic hyperbole or magic realism (given the staff have not aged that much), take your pick.
Also germane to the story are Orpheus the poet, Leon the mathematician and Andronica Burnscoop from CityMedia. Thoreau’s stasis is offset by the Penelope /Izaac love story which in turn is challenged by Isaac and his mates becoming preoccupied with composing the last possible song. You have to see it – and I heartily recommend you do – to understand how this comes to pass.
William Connor’s script, recently developed since its 2012 debut in Greytown, has Thoreau narrating the story retrospectively. He has observed and now reports what’s happened in a time past but, in the re-enactments, he doesn’t influence the action in any significant way. This, of course, is correct behaviour for a professional reporter but as a character in an unfolding drama he is rather more passive than he could be.
In literal terms, as an unofficial guest – thanks to the Cook – Thoreau does earn his keep by fixing broken windows and things, off stage. I suppose one could say the story turns out to have had a material effect on him even if not vice versa. Perhaps the idea is that, like his 19th century American namesake, he is there to invite us to philosophise on the events he observes. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if more dramatic tension would arise from the story unfolding through present action without narration, so that everyone is experiencing what happens for the first time.
The flat-walled setting, behind which the three puppeteers – William Connor, Catherine Swallow and Alison Walls – stand, depicts a fir-tree forest, the hotel lobby, the kitchen and the kitchen garden. An upper level is used as the Mr Goldsworth’s office and the hotel’s accommodation wing in the background has practical shutters which open to reveal Thoreau at one point. No designer is credited but Kelly Spencer has done a splendid job of painting it, and Stage Manager Anke Szczepanski and Stage Hand Freya Davies are very efficient at setting and striking miniature furniture and the odd prop.
Director Steffen Kreft has lovingly created the 9 marionettes, each with strongly characterised faces although the eyes are rather vacant. Nevertheless the three actors enliven them with well differentiated voices. It has to be said, though, that marionettes and the least agile and expressive puppet genre while being the most labour-intensive in their making, maintenance and operation. We therefore have to project a lot of our own humanity onto them – and we feel a special delight when the puppets’ expressions appear to change, as happens a few times here. This, I think, largely answers my initial question.
Jen Lal’s subtle lighting is enormously effective in helping to bring the characters and stories alive, and her aurora lights are a poetic treat. Phill Jones’ music, much of it performed live, supports the moods beautifully while enhancing the story’s rhythm and flow.
In essence the Vastness at the End of the World represents the great unknown beyond our present lives, to which everyone has a different response. The characters’ meta-theatrical acknowledgement that they are marionettes with strings attached that simultaneously bring them to life yet restrict them is both amusing and thought-provoking.
So the hotel houses people who may or may not decide to move on from it, or freely choose it as their preferred lifestyle. In witnessing what happens with these characters, we get to consider our own positions. That’s a good result from 75 minutes of engagement at human, metaphysical and meta-theatrical levels.
While this is an adult puppet show it should appeal to anyone from, say, 11 upwards.