Thursday, October 1, 2009

Helena and the Journey of the Hello

Terrapin Puppet Theatre (toured by Tasmania Performs)

Kettering Hall

October 30, 2009

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg


Tasmania Performs is currently bringing Helena and the Journey of the Hello to regional communities around Tasmania, giving them the opportunity to see a slightly refined version of the Helena which was performed for Hobart audiences a year ago at the Peacock Theatre. Helena is a family show, but is an intricate, layered, and dark “adult” fairytale which weaves traditional puppetry, digital technology, music, and comedy around a firm central core of text-based narrative.


At the heart of this work is Finegan Kruckemeyer’s gorgeously poetic script, which tells us the stories of why Helena eventually gives away her voice; why her mother Madeleine left the family to disappear forever into a mobile phone; why her father Alvarez sings with animals in the forest and then decides to sail away from her in a boat; and how a small word like hello joins people to each other all across the world. Some of these “why”s aren’t satisfactorily answered – which wouldn’t be a problem except that the play’s three forest-animal-narrators regularly tell us that in order to understand one “why”, we must know the story behind another “why”. In the end, the questions begin to meld into one big “why”.


Frank Newman’s direction is energetic and heartfelt, making the most of the capriciously playful, mournful, philosophical, and sinister turns in the script. His cast are similarly dynamic, and have a tight working relationship which focuses the often far-fetched scope of the narrative. Mel King offers particular warmth and zing and softens the potentially irritating Madeleine; Ryk Goddard engages the audience with a twinkle-eyed confidence; and Sam McMahon adds an especially contented, puckish tone.


I have two reservations about the production. One is that the work feels too “adult” for its target audience. I am all for not patronising children, but at times Helena goes to the other extreme. Kruckemeyer’s superb writing is sometimes just too complex: long phrases and rich symbolism which are wonderfully stimulating (sometimes challengingly so) for an adult audience, but too abstract for many younger viewers.


The other is that the “technology” doesn’t feel integral. The digital puppetry using touch-phones is occasionally intriguing, but the possibilities are not exploited because the straight storytelling seems much more important here. Helena is so text-based (in terms of both form and content) that the phones felt like a decorative distraction. This is puzzling given that they were integral to the inception and development of the work. Unlike Mikelangelo and Fred Showell’s musical contribution, the presence of the digital elements seemed largely superfluous.


I wish the temptations of technology had been able to meet the standard set by moments of traditional and elegant stagecraft such as when Helena’s bed becomes an orchard, then a doorway, then a bed again (only rotated ninety degrees). These moments, for me, are puppetry and physical theatre at their most lovely and magical, and I remain unconvinced that the phenomenal advances in technology are ready to supersede – or even match – them on the stage.

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