Ain’t Over Till the Bald Puppeteer Bows


Show #58: Harlekin, Derevo/San Francisco International Arts Festival, May 20.

Elena Iarovaia and Anton Adasinsky in Harlekin.

By Sam Hurwitt

One marvelous thing about the San Francisco International Arts Festival is seeing the remarkable acts from all around the world the festival brings here, whether it’s the Japanese kyogen troupe Mansaku no Kai in 2005, Circus Baobab from Guinea in 2007, or the Syrian Al Khareef Theatre Troupe this year. As it turns out I wasn’t able to catch Al Khareef because the performance I’d planned to see was cancelled due to delays in getting their visas (problems that I’m told my Theatre Bay Area cover story on the troupe helped alleviate, as just another bit of proof that the artists were expected here), so my first taste of this year’s festival was Russia’s Derevo troupe, a wordless, movement-based ensemble somewhat inspired by Japanese butoh performers.

As the name implies, Harlekin, the piece Derevo gave its US premiere at Fort Mason last weekend, is also inspired by commedia dell’arte, but more in the costumes and characters than in the style of the piece. It comes off as a very bleak, often funny and sometimes abstruse clown show set in an overwhelmingly gloomy, barren atmosphere.

Dressed all in black, a stern-looking Tanya Khabarova sits on a multicolored block that looks like an oversize child’s toy or circus remnant. Her face impassive, she lets one hand inch slowly upward and then unfurl while a man and woman caper in behind her in ratty-looking Harlequin and Colombine costumes.

Creator, director, and company founder Anton Adasinsky makes a gaunt and haunted Harlequin who goes through Christlike tribulations when he’s not out carousing with his drinking buddy, also played by Khabarova. All three performers are ghostly pale and bald-headed. Elena Iarovaia is absolutely magnetic in her oddball dancerly movements as a coquettish Colombine, a healing nun who walks in tripping little steps almost like Irish step dancing, and especially as a devoted organ grinder’s monkey who’s unusually abashed to shill for spare change, feigns illness to be pampered by Harlequin, and does amusing monkey tricks to revive him when he’s seemingly been killed.

One melancholy sequence that’s affecting and amusing at the same time has Harlequin repeatedly trying to woo an oblivious Colombine, with romantic music dissolving into screeching violin whenever he draws near. He hands her flowers that she uses to sweep the floor and a wire shape of a crown that she uses as an iron, and finally, clutching his bleeding chest, he rips out his heart and gives it to her in the shape of a red bell pepper into which she blithely bites.

There’s an intriguing bit where Harlequin rips a cross from around the nun’s neck then manipulates it with the strings dangling from it as if operating a marionette, scourges himself with the strings and then tosses the cross away. Then he starts moving as if he’s now the marionette, his limbs lifted from above.  In another sequence he follows Colombine around her home, stepping in front of her again and again to act as her stove burner, her chair, her shower head, her towel.

It’s obvious when you watch the performers that they’re marvelously talented and well-honed physical theater artists, and there are many of these moments that are terrifically effective either in their humor or pathos or more likely both at the same time. There’s also a lot in the show that’s just perplexing, from those glacial opening movements of the woman in black to Harlequin carrying a giant clock hand if it were a heavy cross. He stands as if about to draw a sword and crumbles to the floor, over and over again, when light spills in front of him as if a door’s been opened on a bright sunny day. Whatever these moments might mean is lost in translation.

At the end of the show’s hour and 40 minutes, there’s a very long silence and then the sound of a crowd applauding, which the festival crowd takes as its cue to start applauding as well. Then Khabarova backs through a curtain, bowing to the imaginary crowd on the other side and hangs up two Harlequin and Colombine puppets on either side of the stage, as if she’s been manipulating this puppet show all along. Even after this abstract sort of curtain call, and after the lights came up, the crowd was unsure if the show was over and lingered a long time before anyone stirred to leave.

The San Francisco International Arts Festival continues through May 31.

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