The Soldier's Tale
never needs a festival to be updated, side-dated, or backdated in its morality tale of a soldier who bargains with the devil on his way home from war.
As Faustian parables go, there's great interpretive leeway. The devil isn't wily enough to inspire admiration; the soldier temporarily outsmarts him despite himself. Gains, losses, and the reasons for them are blurry.
So for their Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts entry, Mum Puppettheatre guru Robert Smythe and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia cast an unusually wide net of presentation possibilities. A V-shaped screen hung over the Perelman Theater stage for black-and-white archival footage of European village scenes and full-color sky scapes for more fantastical moments. A live actor played the part of the soldier before signing on with the devil, but mouthed the words of the narrator. When under the devil's spell, the soldier became a small puppet. After vanquishing the devil, the soldier became a person again, and spoke for himself.
Good ideas all, and used in ways that were never confusing. Yet there were problems: The actors weren't equally adept at such theatrical multitasking. Intent was always apparent, but the meticulousness one would expect in an international festival was lacking. The puppetry's mutations - from puppet bodies manipulated by people to half-puppets (artificial limbs but human faces) - weren't seamless. Neither were the wrinkled projection screens.
The greatest strength of this version was the narration, written by poet/puppeteer Andrew Periale and spoken by theater director Dan Kern. That element was all The Soldier's Tale should be, mixing topical references about hedge-fund managers with more phantasmagoric imagery. Unfortunately, the narrator's prominence receded in the last 20 minutes, and with it a sense of the cement that held the piece together. The ending, in which the soldier loses his devil-free life by returning to the village of his youth, lacked a satisfying sense of conclusion.
And the music? Conductor Dirk Brosse didn't just get everything in the right place, but, with concertmistress Gloria Justen, looked well beyond the notes, mainly in their use of rhythm. The piece's story goes backward and forward in time, and the musical account showed how the rhythms sometimes do the same. Justen got the most applause on Sunday night - and rightfully so.
Near the end, when the soldier's attractive princess/spouse began to dance, a Seeing Eye dog in the audience cried "woof." Part of the show? You can't plan things like that.