(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal)
Ancient Atlantis, synthesized operatic music, and intricate puppets might make for strange bedfellows, but the three find themselves side by side in the world premiere of “Atlantis: A Puppet Opera.”
Running through Sept. 24 at Austin’s often-experimental Vortex Theater, “Atlantis” pushes the boundaries of theater, opera, and puppets with a resplendent production that treats the ears and eyes.
“Atlantis” is the brainchild of composer Chad Salvata, who wrote the music and libretto as well as created the production design for the show. It is an idiosyncratic retelling of the myth of Atlantis, from its creation through its destruction, with an anti-war message at the heart of it all.
Salvata also performs the pre-recorded background music for the show, which relies upon a heavy synth sound merged with the epic overtones of opera (picture the “Stranger Things” soundtrack with lyrics). This unique mixture generally works well for the archetypal story of Atlantis that is being told, though at times the heavy electronic sound interferes with a full understanding of the lyrics.
“Atlantis” is most definitely an opera in structure and execution, and it has the talented performers necessary to pull off these operatic highs. The major characters are all portrayed by two to three different puppeteers (dressed head to toe in black clothing), one of whom also provides the voice of that character. The puppeteers and vocalists are all exquisitely specific in their work, pulling together the intricate details needed to make a “puppet opera” work.
However, although the fluidly moving puppets are able to express emotion through their body language, their faces remain static masks, which can be problematic in a broad story that relies so much on the emotive expressions of its characters. We are often torn between looking at the puppet and looking at the puppeteers, and we’re never quite sure where our focus is intended to settle. Though we get the emotion of their voices, we miss out on the full dimension of character that operatic performers make accessible to us through their faces.
“Atlantis” may be missing the deep characterization that is so important to an epic opera, but it is certainly not lacking in another key element – spectacle. Since the characters are puppets, and thus tinier than humans in scale, the relatively small playing space of the Vortex becomes enormous, filled with mountains, airships, undersea grottos, and a truly imposing and dangerous Kracken.
Director Bonnie Cullum, along with lighting designer Jason Amato, scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon, and puppet engineers Melissa Vogt and Connor Hopkins, have put together a sumptuous visual feast that creates an epic, mythic ambience.
Although “Atlantis: A Puppet Opera” suffers a bit from a lack of rich characterization, its unique sound and ambitious visual scope provide a feast for the senses, if not the heart.