“The power of the puppet is undoubtedly surging,” wrote Miriam Gillinson in The Guardian in 2011, noting a theatrical trend that anyone who’d seen anything by Julie Taymore since the ’90s might have anticipated.The renewed popularity of the ancient form of mimicked expression slipped from experimental veneration into the mainstream in the 2000s, with massive productions like Warhorse, Avenue Q and The Lion King, along with that show where you sit and watch Australians folding their foreskins and scrota for an hour, and most recently, Hand to God.
More often than not, puppetry highlights characteristics of human/animal nature and movement that’d otherwise be taken for granted. We’ve seen the potential — both symbolic and prosaic — of giving life to everything from socks to sinewy horse sculptures to Australian penises in contemporary performance. And now, there’s a new, strange and profoundly disquieting play-ish performance-art-ish thing currently at the Public Theater, and it could be seen as a quintessentially current reimagining of puppetry.
The Art of Luv (Part 1): Elliot by The Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble — part of the Public’s annual Under the Radar Festival — uses its three actors’ bodies and voices as puppets for the Internet — namely, YouTube.
“Perhaps it’s down to the simple stories that puppets help portray,” Gillinson continues in her Guardian piece. “After all, unless you want a hideously overburdened narrator, a puppet show plot has to be relatively straightforward.” Indeed, puppet shows — even, as in Charlie Kaufman’s recent Anomalisa, at their most studiedly mundane — tend to have an air of fabulism, a simple framing for the gestural meticulousness of puppets. The successes of shows like Kneehigh Theater Company’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, which Gillinson also mentions in her article, belong to a wave of theater that returns to traditional storytelling structures, perhaps made so palatable in reaction to the Internet age’s affront to all senses of longevity and structure. If giving humans the godlike power of manipulating objects into (superficial) sentience is part of an old storytelling tradition, giving the Internet the godlike power to manipulate humans to lack sentience would befit meditations on this funny little ontological rule-breaking era of ours — in ways that defy traditional narrative, or even authorial forms.
Reducing actors to shells is nothing new or particular to the times. The most ancient traditions of mask work (both Eastern and Western) required actors to turn their own bodies into puppets, assuming an exaggerated physical life to make up for an inability to portray interiority through facial expression. In the 16th century, Comedia dell’Arte turned actors into stock characters, regurgitated through varied farcical narratives, and drew humor in caricatural emotionality. Ionesco’s absurdist theater often necessitated puppet-like delivery, and Robert Wilson’s directorial career has proven one large effort to showcase all the different ways you can make actors move across the stage with dehumanized deliberateness against striking lighting while occasionally squealing or bellowing disjointed phrases. (Turns out: there are a lot of ways!) Wilson’s tendency to restrain and magnify actors’ movements to a puppet-like vocabulary was considered postmodern, but his performances nonetheless venerate traditional storytelling, often adapted as they are from classics or folktales. The internet, and its modes of fragmentation, rarely seem to figure into Wilson’s works.
Tei Blow and Sean McElroy’s The Art of Luv (Part 1): Elliot thus seems, at its core, different in its style of human puppetry. The piece — a meditation on toxic masculinity, courtship, and the discursive pervasion of gender norms — similarly invokes theatrical tradition as a framework, recalling the germinative locale of Western theater. The players are dressed hilariously as cheap sort-of-Greek demigods, sporting laurels and wigs and gold lamé boxer briefs under their ancient robes. But they are not part of some great tragedy or cohesive story: they are puppets giving cohesion to a fragmentary text and through their singular forms and voices.
Lassoing ancient spirituality and current corporatized notions of mindfulness, they lead audiences in a meditation — assuming tranquil tones while performing electronic-new wave music — before submitting to a 60-minute YouTube collage, in which they become hollow reifications of the images on a screen. (Similarly, the floor of their tiny stage features two Dance Dance Revolution mats, the perfect symbol of human subordination to technologic suggestion). The YouTube clips together create a miasma of voices upholding a stratified culture of gendered expectations, ranging from nonchalance to desperation: vlogged confessionals, footage from VHS-recorded self-help conferences, the dictations of workout gurus, and most horrifically and centrally, clips from the Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger’s YouTube videos. (Blow and McElroy were in the middle of a residency creating the piece crafted, as per the New York Times, from “YouTube videos with almost no audience” when the shooting happened.)
For the entirety of the play (barring the rare moments of meditation), the actors engage in a form of reverse lip-syncing. The YouTube clips are muted — though dictated to the actors through headphones — so that the words pour from their mouths in emotionally half-neutralized tones, at the same time as the presences onscreen silently speak.
The performance piece can perhaps most directly be compared to Post-Internet Art, a current scantily-defined visual art movement that, unlike Internet Art, envisions a culture where even the tangible is mediated by the virtual, with recognizably virtual imagery reified in objects. The Art of Luv similarly turns people into concretizations of the web. This is an especially weighty statement, when the web is presented as a locale where seemingly innocuous confessionals about the difficulties of love within the binary can commingle with words that’d later prove dangerous. If we didn’t now know what Rodger’s words (taken from one of his earlier videos) ultimately foreshadowed, his statements wouldn’t have stood out as more than all-too-standard Internet misogyny spouted by some entitled schmuck. You could come across them online nonchalantly, get miffed by them, and forget them. It’s hard to know exactly what the decontextualized voices we hear to online everyday mean, who they’re coming from, and how much control they exert.
What’s perhaps most intriguing is that the actors aren’t just performing as the Internet’s puppets, but as puppets of a realm of the Internet that masquerades as human — videos of people in motion and in emotion. True to its subject matter — a mining of the discourses that construct and perpetuate gender and (here, solely) heterosexual norms — the Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble (who employed a similar format for their previous performance), envisions a new form of puppetry that doesn’t shy away from and seek nostalgic shelter in traditional allegories, but rather that submits itself to the age we’re in.
The company isn’t necessarily asserting that this world is any more insidious than the world ever was — the structure of influence and control has merely changed. In the past, bodied humans used to control other humans — now, just as often, disembodied humans contribute to a larger, imperceptible body that does it. This conceit has a revitalizing effect on postmodern fragmentation, seeing it at its most viscerally upsetting. As far as theatrical tradition goes, it’s potent to see a theater company stripping actors of their typical agency to interpret a text, and rather seeing texts interpret them. It makes sense that we’d start to see plays where humans are no longer the puppeteers, nor even the puppets of playwrights. In this small performance, they’re the puppets of their own intangible creation.