Life, struggle, theater
A friend jealous of our New York address and all those theater opportunities he imagines we're enjoying asks if we've seen the Lincoln Center production of Lear. No, not yet. But just to make all you out of towners really jealous, I report that we did however see the opera Il ritorno d'Ullisse, music by Claudio Monteverdi, direction by the South African artist William Kentridge, performances by the Handspring Puppet Company (also of South Africa), which played all the roles, terrific singers dubbing for the puppets in the roles of Ullisse, Penelope, Telemaco et al., and the Ricercar Consort playing instruments that may have been used in the original production (1640).

I would have gone to a lot of trouble just to see or hear any one of these elements: the puppet company, the consort, those voices, and especially Kentridge's drawings and stage direction. He's very prolific, but I hadn't known him as a director before. What I had seen were his animations of his rough and hasty-looking charcoal drawings -- often sinister and political -- where one scene dissolves into another, the trees in the forest turn into watch towers of a concentration camp, buildings suddenly grow and just as suddenly blow apart. Seeing all these elements work together so tightly and synergistically made me appreciate Kentridge's directorial power.

Kentridge makes the story ambiguous. One Ulysses puppet lies dying on a hospital litter (these puppets are about half life-size, and animated by a plainly visible puppeter who makes this one breathe heavily and occasionally make an effort to sit up; the effect is Brechtian -- the openness of the manipulation makes the audience more trusting of the truth that is being said). Then another, identical Ulysses puppet lands on Ithaca after his 20-year absence, and begins his final great adventure (at least, the last one that Homer sang about). You know the story: he disguises himself as an old man, finds Penelope in the palace surrounded by suitors whom she's been holding off (for 20 years!), turns out to be the only one present strong enough to string Ulysses' might bow, and then shoots the suitors. Meanwhile, Monteverdi's music and the voices -- especially Furio Zanaxi (Ulisse), Kristina Hammarström (Penelope), Mark Adler (Giove, no less -- that is, Jove, the big guy) and Elise Gäbele (Minerva, Ulysses' favorite deity). And the sound of the Consort. And Kentridge's photomontages and drawings (a big white owl always appears for Minerva, but other references are less obvious) tell us that the story is about more than the story, it's about life itself and struggle.

Here's a good site for bio and examples of the work of William Kentridge.