When the lights come up—or barely come up—in Dramaton Theater's puppet-play trilogy The Traveler, at Theater for the New City as part of the Voice 4 Vision puppetry festival, we see a man peek out from behind a rock. His face is chalk-white, his tiny hands appear shriveled, and between the near-invisible rods that connect these hands to his chin there is nothing. No body. The black-clothed, black-masked body of his puppeteer lingers upstage of him, the solid shadow of a barely material man. The design of this puppet, and most of the others in The Traveler, exists midway between Japanese bunraku and rod puppetry. Like the showcase's artists, the puppets' characters are caught between different places and different forms. Thematically, The Traveler concerns travelers, the homeless, the invisible or transparent, and ghosts. Each of which, Dramaton passionately contends, is synonymous with all of the others.
The first tale, "The Road," is an adaptation of British poet Richard Middleton's 1911 short story "On the Brighton Road." In "The Road," or, rather, on it, are two homeless travelers, an old man and an 18-year-old boy. The road in question is in southern England, on the way to Brighton. The man is newly homeless, but the boy has been on the run for years.
But something is not really right with this picture. The cars they pass on the road—realistically represented as near-blinding pairs of headlights careening across the stage—are modern. What is going on here? And will the travelers ever get to Brighton? These mysteries find an entirely predictable solution, but the piece remains entertaining, and a good introduction to the style and themes of the whole showcase.
Like "The Road," the second piece, "Purgatory," is an adaptation, from Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats's 1922 melodrama. Outside a decrepit, burned-out, stately mansion, the aging, homeless descendant of a headstrong noblewoman and her working-class husband leads his "bastard" son into his own inescapable purgatory.
The story seems very dated, with the father an alcoholic, destructive ingrate and the aristocratic mother a tragic martyr to her love for him. Without her dangerously democratic sexuality, the house would not have burned down. This is especially apparent when the old man watches his parents' ghosts at their moment of tragic downfall—his own conception. The play critiques the protagonist's classist paranoia, but the characters are two-dimensional figures of evil and good.
That is not the case in the final piece, "K." This original play was written for Dramaton by Enma Ito, artistic director of Japan's Fantoma Theater Company, and translated by Shima Ushiba. Ito achieves a remarkable complexity of character for a script of this length.
The title seems to allude to Josef K, the harrowed protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Trial. Like Josef K, the hero of "K" is the focus of a much-unwarranted accusation. He is a black cat. Bitter, self-centered, and distrustful of a world that condemns him without knowing him, the black cat is transformed when he meets the Faceless Man, the ghost of an aspiring artist who died unrecognized. The Faceless Man renames the black cat "Holy Night" and entrusts to him a difficult, important, and sacred mission that will transform them both.
With "K," Dramaton definitely saved the best for last. "The Road" and "Purgatory" are entertaining, beautiful (of a sort), and clever, but "K" is emotionally compelling, and the ending almost draws tears. Furthermore, whereas the preceding two pieces could be performed by live actors, "K" cannot. Defiance of gravity, human transparency, an animal character that would give Walt Disney nightmares, and a voyage into what appears to be a sewer system all demand puppetry, and they show off the medium wonderfully.
The cat puppet is as minimal as Dramaton's other creations are. It consists of two glove puppets: the cat's head and its bluish-black, shiny, chaotically furry, and very limber tail. It is at once ugly and beautiful. Its eyes narrow to black holes from which no light escapes, and its long black teeth keep it looking scary rather than cute. Its extra-long silver whiskers stand out in bold chiaroscuro.
The Faceless Man resembles Dramaton's other human puppets in its construction: two rods for the arms and a pale face floating above them. Only this face is sculpted in a transparent material over a flat, face-shaped plate, which appears to be made out of a mirror. What better way for the frustrated artist to haunt his abandoned world than as a literal mirror held up to nature?
"K" concludes with a beautiful final twist that I can't reveal but that makes perfect sense of the title and shows how imagination drawn out of darkness can brighten the world. Which is exactly what Dramaton, in presenting The Traveler, accomplishes.