When the curtain rises in the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre’s production of The Historye of Queen Esther, King Ahasverus and of the Haughty Haman, four magnificently tall and colorful puppets dominate the stage. The puppets, like their human actor counterparts, are large-scale representations of the play’s main characters, and throughout the show echo the stage action like extended shadows. Unfortunately, these puppets are the most exciting aspect of the show, an awkward and lackluster take on an incredibly dated piece of 18th-century folk theater. A hit on the traveling marionette show circuit in the 1700s, The Historye of Queen Esther is based on the Bible’s Book of Esther. In the biblical telling, King Ahasverus of Persia holds a contest to name a new queen after his wife, Vashti, refuses an order to display her beauty for the King’s guests. The winner of this contest is Esther, a gorgeous young Persian woman who happens to be of Jewish descent, a fact she hides from the king, as advised by her stepfather Mordechai. Sitting near the palace gate one day, Mordechai overhears two royal attendants plot to kill the King. He reports their treachery, and they are executed. Mordechai’s respect for the King, however, does not extend to his prime minister, the haughty Haman. When Mordechai refuses to bow before him, Haman vows to kill him and obliterate his people, the Jews. Fortunately, the King learns of Mordechai’s honorable deed and vows to reward him, foiling Haman’s efforts. This leads Esther to reveal her true heritage, and the King amends Haman’s decree against the Jews, allowing them to defend themselves against persecution. He also orders Haman’s execution.
Incorporating stock comical characters, goofy word play, and distractingly loud instrumental accompaniment, the Czech Marionette Theatre’s take on this story is only slightly more chipper, retaining much of the content and structure of the Biblical version. Though the play ends on a happy note, with comeuppances to its villains, it isn’t really a show for kids, as it’s promoted to be. In addition to the on-stage hangings and Jew-hating, some of the verbal jokes involve advanced vocabulary that kids won’t understand, and punning that will make adults cringe. This is a shame, as children are likely the only ones to get much out of such a farce.
With children in mind, the play attempts to demonstrate a moral involving the danger of haughtiness, but it’s clear that the bigger issue is bigotry. The overwrought attempt to harvest a moral is just one problem. Whereas the moralizing is an oversimplification, the dialogue is a complication of a simple story. Theresa Linniham’s performance as Kasparkek (the Punch of the Czech version of Punch and Judy) is a welcome relief from the plodding tone. Though clumsy wordplay sometimes overshadows her skills at accents and clowning, she uses every opportunity to showcase her talents as a vaudevillian. Unfortunately, some of the other actors do not share her fluidness and eagerness to entertain, which further weighs the play down.
Though the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre is known for its post-modern approach to puppetry, which involves the obvious presence of the puppet master, they do not use this style to their benefit here, and the actors are upstaged by marvelously clever-looking marionettes. Created by Jakub Krejci, Michelle Beshaw and Emily Wilson, the cast of puppets is widely varied and incorporates odd instruments to delightful, surprising effect. Some have chalkboards or violins for chests, plungers for legs, hammers for arms, dazzling beads for a bosom—all of which relate to the personalities of the characters in witty ways. It’s a pleasure to see a new puppet enter the spotlight, but, sadly, this satisfaction wears off once the puppet begins to speak.
Perhaps The Historye of Queen Esther is doomed by its dreary source material to be a heavy-handed attempt at dealing with the complicated historical attitude toward Jews, but one can’t help but wish that the Czech Marionette Theatre group applied the innovation that produced its puppets to the live performance. Whereas the plunger and hammer limbs of the marionettes move with grace, the human actors are stiff and dull. If a carpenter like Geppetto could work his magic on this show, maybe the wood and the flesh would work together in greater harmony, and the material wouldn’t seem so ancient.