Alaskan puppet troupe Reckoning Motions’ performance of “The Great Ziggurat,” held last Tuesday at the Experimental Station, was challenging, elegantly evocative, and all-around enjoyable. The piece, based loosely on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, explores the concepts of humanity’s penchant to build up and tear down, making use of tower allegories from history and popular culture. Led by Byrne Power, the performance adds new depth to the puppetry medium, challenging its relegation to the realm of children’s entertainment. Complementary storylines create a complex patchwork of images and ideas, leaving the audience wondering and contemplating long after Power and his team take their bows. According to Power, “In conventional theater, everything is predictable–it screams theater. We wanted to create an experience in which people wouldn’t know what they were screaming about.”
In addition to being intellectually compelling, “The Great Ziggurat” is visually stunning. Inspiration for the show’s hodgepodge dÃ©cor–numerous action figures, puppets of driftwood and jetsam, shadow puppets, and a beautifully crafted marionette made by Czech artist Lenka Pavlickova–came from the practices of a Czech puppetry group that Power discovered in 2005 while touring Europe. The group used broken dolls, rusted iron, and badly constructed puppets to tell their stories. This aesthetic spoke to Power, who, back home in Alaska, combined these concepts with inspiration from Alaska’s fierce natural beauty to create his first puppetry group, the Lilliputian Puppet Side Show.
“The Great Ziggurat,” Power’s second puppetry masterpiece, is an endeavor of cooperation. Carsten, the shadow-puppet master, uses his medium to comment on the power of language and the problems King Nimrod of Babylon encounters when patterns of language are broken up. Indeed, the show is extremely multilingual, with lines delivered in Czech, English, Italian, French, and German, to name but a few. Power and his group encourage the audience to make sense of their whimsical, powerful, and sometimes dark performance. “The show is meant to get people thinking without doing anything political,” Power says.