(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)
Connor Hopkins likes to take the stories we think we know and give them a nice big twist. Trouble Puppet Theater shows are often filled with unexpected turns of phrase, plot, or the occasional puppet body part.
“The Wars of Heaven, Part I,” playing through May 17 at Salvage Vanguard Theater, is writer and director Hopkins’ take on what we think is a familiar story: Lucifer and the fallen angels’ war with the heavenly Father.
But when the play opens in Stalingrad in 1942, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t simply an adaptation of “Paradise Lost.”
Rather, in this tale, we meet both the fallen and the favored as they do battle under cover of human conflict. From World War II Russia we move back in time to ancient Egypt, Caledonia, and 1492 America.
We even travel back to the beginning of time in a spectacular sequence of cosmic creation. In this really nifty piece of stage magic, we watch the shadow of puppeteer Noel Gaulin shape the cosmos into matter and create the legions of angels.
But this Father also creates heavenly hierarchies that Lucifer rejects. We learn that after the standoff in heaven, the fallen follow Lucifer down to hell, and the battle on Earth begins – only to repeat itself over, and over, and over as the angels die and simply return to fight again.
In one of the several curious ideological twists of the story, Hopkins casts Lucifer and her followers as female, battling a male-dominant hierarchy lead by the arch-angel Michael. The main characters are two minor angels from opposing-camps – who meet on the battle fields again and again, and eventually tire of the seemingly endless repetition.
“The Wars of Heaven” marks not only a plot shift but a turn away from Trouble Puppet’s standard theatrical forms.
While the main characters resemble more traditional Trouble puppets (36-inch figures manipulated by two or three puppeteers), this story is equally enacted through complex shadow puppetry. It’s a sort of mixed-media hybrid, layering video images and multiple puppetry pieces to create a fascinating tableau with depth and texture.
Unfortunately, it’s also, perhaps, rather over-ambitious. With frequent costume changes for the main puppets and myriad moving parts to the shadow pieces, the production doesn’t have quite enough hands to keep things moving smoothly. The pace is constantly interrupted by slow transitions, and the show struggles to maintain momentum.
As a result, in spite of the dazzling visuals and exceptional sound design, there isn’t enough energy to keep this epic engaging.
“The Wars of Heaven” continues through May 17. www.troublepuppetheater.com