Tangled Storylines Ground Flight Of Puppet ‘Firebird’

The dragon fumes in the Chicago Symphony production of 'The Firebird' at Ravinia. (Photos by Patrick Gipson / Ravinia)
The dragon fumes in Janni Younge’s production of ‘The Firebird’ with the Chicago Symphony.
(Photos by Patrick Gipson / Ravinia)
By Daniel Hautzinger

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – The new production of Stravinsky’s The Firebird performed at the Ravinia Festival on July 26 is a spectacle. It features elaborate mechanical creatures, life-size marionettes minus their strings, and elegant body extensions designed by Janni Younge, who also directed. Choreography by Jay Pather utilizes ballet, contemporary, and West African styles. Michael Clark’s childlike sketches flex and morph on an ovoid screen. At the climax (unfortunately more of an anti-climax), that screen cracks open like the egg it really is, revealing a monumental dragon­ that then cocks its head and breathes smoke.

The Firebird soars above the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia.
The Firebird soars above the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia.

There’s also Stravinsky’s magical score — easy to forget behind all the activity. “Behind” is the right word, for the visual farrago often obscures the music. It is difficult enough to grasp everything that is happening onstage, let alone pay much attention to the orchestra, in this case the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon.

The ending sequence that begins with a wickedly ecstatic “Infernal Dance” and culminates in the glorious “Disappearance of Kashchei’s Palace,” one of the most wondrous stretches of orchestral music ever composed, loses some of its effect as a result of clumsy theatrics.

During these fantastic passages of music, the narrative culminates in the awkward birth of the dragon, the set-up of which takes considerable time but has minimal payoff and requires most other onstage action to stop. The insertion of an interlude by Daniel Eppel, one of several in which the orchestra musicians rub paper and add atmospheric touches to create a rustling soundscape, doesn’t help. Nor does the placement of the orchestra far back on the stage help, as the live sound is trapped in the rafters.

Some of the puppets are delightfully creative. Younge is a member of Handspring Puppet Company, which created the ingenious puppets for the award-winning War Horse stage production. Instead of crafting large-scale birds, she gives dancers single wings of paper for their arms that drape and flutter as they move. Occasionally, dancers combine to create a full animal, two acting as wings and one holding a head while perched on another’s shoulders, becoming a quirky but graceful bird. Vellum children held by one to three people are incredibly human in their movement, especially while kicking a ball around, the ball itself on the end of a pole twirled by another dancer.

Members of the Handspring Puppet Company in concert with the Chicago Symphony.
Members of the Handspring Puppet Company in concert with the Chicago Symphony.

But the most ambitious puppets, while impressive, work less well. The dragon, a phoenix, and a horned dog are striking but more cumbersome and not as conducive to dance as the other puppets and props. The mythical creatures of paper, rattan, and vellum call to mind another mechanical ingenuity of legend: the wings of Icarus.

Like Icarus, this production strives for too much as it tries to present a wealth of theatrics all at once. There are rarely fewer than six people on stage and usually some form of puppet. Most scenes feature several shifting configurations of solos, duets, and other ensembles on different parts of the stage. Coupled with Clark’s animation (which amounts to a short film) and a not-all-that central main figure (the “Seeker,” emotively danced by Jacqueline Manyaapelo), all of this action is overwhelming. I ended up mostly ignoring the projections and still didn’t know where to look.

The Seeker (Jacqueline Manyaapelo) confronts the dragon.
The Seeker (Jacqueline Manyaapelo) confronts the dragon.

This confusion is compounded by another Icarus-like overreach: cramming too many layers of meaning into a show that is less than an hour long. The program book contains an introduction, a synopsis, a director’s note, and an explanation of choreographic style, as well as a long-form article that is supplemented by an introductory video played before the performance.

Amid all this, one learns that the production depicts the “struggle each of us faces to find and embrace our power.” It explores the dichotomy between good and evil, “construction” and “deconstruction.” It examines the playing out of this dynamic in post-apartheid South Africa, the home of Younge and her collaborators. And it illustrates the potential in the wake of destruction for “a new power, an integrated and balanced power” to arise.

That’s a lot of layers to excavate, and they obscure each other as well as any sort of narrative. Not that a production needs an obvious story, but when there supposedly is one, it’s frustrating to be unable to grasp it, no matter how abstract. Nor should the narrative or allegorical parallels detract from the simple enjoyment of a show.

British conductor Ben Gernon led the Chicago Symphony.
British conductor Ben Gernon led the Chicago Symphony.

For a counter-example, take the music performed by the CSO in the first half of the evening. Debussy’s La mer and the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes are scores that are programmatic in a discernible way and also stand on their own as pure music. You may need to know that La mer is about the sea to hear waves in it, but it is uncanny in conjuring a feeling of water and waves and sunlight, though they were a bit frothy and not entirely brilliant in Gernon’s reading. Britten’s Interludes are even more evocative, capturing not just a picture of his beloved English coast in different weather conditions but also hinting at the psychological mood of the characters in the opera from which the music is pulled.

Unfortunately, the descriptive and psychological underpinnings of Younge’s production were not so clear. Commissioned by the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts featuring the National Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia Festival, Sun Valley Summer Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, and Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the production continues on to Sun Valley, Idaho, and Saratoga, N.Y., in the first weeks of August.

Daniel Hautzinger has worked for the Grant Park Music Festival and written for Chicago On the Aisle, icareifyoulisten.com, and Cleveland Classical. He graduated with degrees in history and piano from Oberlin College and Conservatory, where he wrote a thesis on Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh Festival, and modernity.