I arrived at the SoHo Playhouse assuming I’d love this show. I’m a big fan of adult puppet theater, and I’d enjoyed this company’s production, The Whale, in Edinburgh. Perhaps these expectations contributed to my disappointment; I found this latest work overly sentimental and with a one-hour running time, about twenty minutes too long.
Geppetto (Carlo Adinolfi) arrives at his puppet workshop in crisis. He is scheduled to perform in an important festival but must do it alone. His beloved wife and performing partner has died. We know she was beloved because of the many times he lovingly gazes at and kisses her photograph. She seems to have extracted a death-bed promise to do the show despite her passing.
This is a potentially strong conflict. The stakes are high, and trying to “play all the parts” while dealing with grief underscore what he has lost and adds to the pressure he’s feeling. It leads to some funny and inventive puppet work, and his various failures to rework his material as a solo show create concrete reminders of how painfully different everything is going to be from now on.
In frustration and despair he accidentally breaks the legs of the male puppet who always plays the heroes. The rest of the show is Geppetto’s attempts at telling other stories and creating new (and quite different) legs for the puppet in order to accommodate his new circumstances — both internal and external.
There are strong themes at work here: the damaged hero struggling to forge a new identity; the need to adapt despite the desire to cling to what once was; and the question of whether or not the show must really go on. There are some transfixing and beautiful moments when (as in the best puppet theater) the humanity of the wooden character shines through. When Geppetto has to explain to the puppet that he can’t fix his legs, the puppet is palpably bereft. In other moments this same wooden character can be quite indignant and put-out. All with a carved face whose features never change. This is a testimony not only to the power of puppet theater but to Adinolfi as performer and puppet designer.
Unfortunately, the stories enacted become repetitive and predictable and the human performance too weepy for my taste. The puppet’s pain over losing his legs, losing his heroic abilities, losing a loved one, felt more fresh and engaging precisely because of the simplicity and often complete silence of those moments. There is an old acting adage: “If you cry, you don’t allow the audience to cry for you.” The puppet allowed us to cry for him; the human did it for us, making his anguish less effective. But more problematic is that despite the unconventional use of puppets to tell the story, the script tells us nothing new about grief, loss, or survival.
EXTRAORDINARY EXTREMITIES — Written and directed by Renee Philippi with an original score by Lewis Flinn
With: Carlo Adinolfi (Geppetto) and cellist Alon Bisk; Set and Puppet Design by Carlo Adinolfi, lighting by Casey McLain; Manager, Darren Lee Cole Theatricals, Inc.; Production Stage Manager, Casey McLain. Presented by SoHo Playhouse in association with Concrete Temple Theatre. At SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, Manhattan http://www.sohoplayhouse.com/ Through May 31. 212-691-1555