Romeo & Julia. Puppet Theater. Directed by Merja Pöyhönen for Aura of Puppets and Tehdas Teatteri. Visiting production at the Oulu City Theater. 20 March 2016
Reviewed by Nely Keinänen
This provocative production of Romeo & Julia [Romeo and Juliet] is set in a garbage dump, the kind of garbage dump which is growing uncontrollably into a small mountain, attracting gulls, rats, a stray dog, a chicken. Children who scavenge through the trash looking for something, anything. Adults so wasted on drugs and sex they have forgotten how to look. According to the director’s program notes, this Verona is a place “where girls are sold and boys’ toys become real weapons, where the way out is through an imagined realm beyond death, where dreams are crushed under the weight of inherited disadvantage.” It’s hardly the place for a love story.
Some of the best puppet work is done evoking this world. Rats scamper everywhere, so fast and with such precision that they look and sound real. Gulls hover overhead, sometimes diving down, screeching. Romeo’s pet dog Balthazar (Nanna Mäkinen) is a feisty little grey bundle with soulful eyes. His loyalty, especially in the last scene, was touching. Most of the puppets are naked, with breasts of various sizes flinging this way and that. At the beginning of the play, the cigar-toting Nurse (Alma Rajala) offers Juliet a breast which she takes, though later she regards it with disdain. Visually, one of the most compelling moments was when the mountains of garbage were suddenly pulled away, leaving behind a bare stage.
The play opens with a comical prologue, a make-shift stage quickly set up with a red curtain, the characters like schoolchildren bravely repeating lines spoken by their teacher/director. The education theme is prominent throughout, as it is precisely education which might enable Romeo and Juliet to escape. (This production is partly inspired by the story of an American couple who are paying the parents of Cambodian children who would otherwise be scavenging for plastics and metals at a local dump the money they would earn so the children can attend school instead.) Juliet (Sirpa Järvenpää) is introduced reading a book, and later looks longingly at a map which has fallen out of a child’s board game. Early on she dons a battered purple graduation cap, and tries comically to teach her pet chicken (Maria-Elina Koivula) the alphabet.
What Juliet perhaps most wants to escape from is her parents. In this version, Lady Capulet (Lotta Virtanen) is a drug addict being supplied by Paris (Niina Lindroos), hence Juliet is being married off in payment for a drug debt. In a marvelous bit of puppet work, Lady Capulet agonizingly tries to shake a few last pills out of a plastic bottle. Capulet (Outi Sippola) is wily yet defeated, his anger drifting off into stupor. For me, this drug- and alcohol-induced oblivion affecting especially the older generation and Paris made the feud less believable. Juliet was so much smarter than her parents I kept expecting her to just get up and walk away. That she couldn’t, or felt she couldn’t, was almost the bigger tragedy. Also lessening the force of the feud was the decision to have many of the characters use high rather screechy voices, making a few of them rather difficult to understand. Again, I think this decision grew out of the concept, as people living in such polluted areas develop respiratory problems which might very well affect their speech. Complicating things still more, sometimes Capulet and Montague beat up their wives, rather than each other.
Romeo (Toni Kandelin) and Juliet had some fine moments together. They made love for the first time underneath Juliet’s yellow child’s blanket, a haunting reminder of how young they are. The death scenes, with the puppets miraculously able to hold and shoot a handgun, were also very well done. The text, based on the late 19th century Finnish translation by Paavo Cajander, was quite sparse, but Juliet in particular was given some wonderful lines of poetry.
I ended up finding parts of the production off-putting, but afterwards I found myself wondering whether this is precisely the point. The worlds being described are not pretty, and cannot, should not, be aestheticized away. This point was reinforced even more when the puppeteers came on without their puppets, dressed as terrorists, anarchists, wildly trying to dance and shout these problems away. Their energy was contagious, even inspiring. But in the end, Romeo and Juliet are dead, and nothing has changed in Verona. Garbage—our garbage—will continue to flow in, to be picked through by children, dogs and rats.
Photo credits: Jussi Virkkumaa