We have last saw unusual puppetry at UMD's Clarice Smith Performing Art center before in 2013. That year we saw the Table in which a Bunraku-style Moses puppet performed an extended one man (and three puppeteer) extended monologue that was frequently hilarious. The Salt of the Earth is a rather different story of a puppet on a challenging journey to a safe haven in the land of Israel. In this case, the puppet is on the road to the Ein Harod kibbutz, seeking to escape Tel Aviv after a military coup.
The official summary is admirably succinct and descriptive:
A thousand pounds of salt become a punishing Middle Eastern desert; plastic tanks barrel down paper streets; and a faceless, nameless puppet emerges a rebel hero in this work by artist Zvi Sahar. Puppetry and hand-painted miniature sets combine with live filmmaking and projected video feeds, as a Lilliputian universe is created and destroyed before our eyes.
In this, the play fully delivers. The puppetry is skilled, as is the cinematography which is conducted live, sometimes featuring the puppet, sometimes giving the protagonist's perspective of sets featuring salt, paper cut outs, and miniatures. The audience's ability to watch both the performance and filming and the screen up above was fascinating and mixed the virtues of theater and live film. The stylized buildings had sufficient fidelity that Kate was able to recognize an admittedly prominent fountain amidst White City buildings that she'd only previously seen in my photos.
The entire troupe performed impressively with the director and lead Zvi Sahar and the actor portraying Mahmoud having the most material to work with. Unfortunately for me, the plotting was not as strong in the second half. The noir troupes of the story, admittedly with an Israeli twist, sometimes undercut the benefits of genuinely interesting writing. For example, the female characters were often tasked with inscrutability and implausible sex (tastefully handled, I should note). I think this traces back to the source material which is well adapted, although a portrayal shift late in the play left both Kate and I briefly confused and we weren't sure that confusion was intentional.
We are quite happy with our choice to see it and some moments of the play and performances will stick with us. Even if the story had a second act problem starting with a hostage taking, it still left us with things to think about. If Puppet Cinema is again in our area, I'd certainly be curious to see what they do next.
Image credit: PuppetCinema photo by Yair Meyuhas.