The Shadow (Puppet) of War

Even in the darkest of times, there is always a place for a man with a little imagination. Mr. M is just such a man in his namesake play, created by The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. The play tackles painful material, but does so in a unique way, utilizing shadow puppetry, marionettes, dancing, and singing. The play offers delightful entertainment while at the same time packing a powerful emotional punch. Set during the Second World War, at a time when Jews were being sent away on transport trains to the concentration camps, the play contemplates what the individual should do while waiting for his inevitable fate to occur. Unlike Beckett’s tramps, these lost souls know that that for which they wait is certain to come; others have already begun to disappear. The dreaded signal: a white envelope through the mail slot. When we meet Mr. M, such an envelope has just slipped into his door. Luckily for him, it is a false lead; it is only a letter from some old friends asking him to visit. In light of this recent scare, Mr. M decides to prepare himself for the inevitable and “practices” certain tasks that he deems will be necessary when his letter comes.

Mr. M slips between being a realistic play about Mr. M’s encounters with the fellow members of his small Jewish community and an expressionistic tale told from the perspective of Mr. M’s overactive mind. These two threads are balanced ingeniously. Every element of the play works to keep the line between reality and fiction blurred, but only just enough to make clear how the two worlds rely on each other for their existence.

The highlight of the play is the use of performing objects on stage. The use of the puppets is a clever way to allow the audience entry into Mr. M’s mind. The world of the play is evoked with very few props and only a couple of on-stage locations, yet it is easy to feel as though one has traveled throughout the village with Mr. M, meeting all its inhabitants along the way. The costumes work well with the set design to highlight the time period and the social situation of these individuals. Everything is specific enough to ground the work in the realm of reality, but accented with just the right of amount of the abstract to remind the audience that we have never left the skewed vantage point of our protagonist.

As Mr. M, Ronny Wasserstrom is charming and entirely sympathetic. It is easy to laugh along with his hijinks and, at the same time, feel great empathy for his strife. The company of actors around him does a phenomenal job of creating believable entities for all of the personae of his day-to-day life as well as his more fanciful friends. Theresa Linnahan does a superb job of making the character of Mr. M’s pet pigeon Chickie one for whom we feel great love. Her movements on stage create the illusion of an animal body but also suggest the countenance of a loyal companion.

The ambiance is rounded out with the use of Jewish music to accompany the show. Both the singer and the accordion player become like characters within the world of this play. Even though they are both positioned far stage left and perform as separate entities from the rest of the company, they seem to be integral elements within the tale. Even if one does not understand the words of the songs, their tones and tempi suggest specific moods for each of the scenes, helping to move the action forward at a crisp pace.

How do we portray suffering? Mr. M offers us one model. Rather than dwelling on the pain and suffering, find some of the light and use that to illuminate the situation. All in all, this is an incredibly special piece of theater. It takes the subject matter of the Holocaust, a topic that is often still difficult to discuss, and places it in an atmosphere that is at turns both somber and playful. The piece is thereby able to highlight just how much was lost during those terrible years: funny, warm, imaginative people, people with friends and pets and minds and hopes and dreams. This play, with all its use of elements that are often labeled as “alienating,” puts a very human face on the experience of the Holocaust. Mr. M performs for us, begging us to bear witness, and we should.

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