‘The Amazing & Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet’ at Wit’s End Puppets at Mead Theatre Lab by Justin Schneider

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THREE AND A HALF STARS
How do we determine our place in the world? How do we give our lives meaning? And how do we do both of these things while dealing with loss and change? These are just a few of the questions posed by The Amazing & Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet, the charming new production by Wit’s End Puppets.

Kismet encounters creatures from Paper World. With puppeteers Amy Kellett, Matt Reckeweg, Amie Root, and Genna Davidson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Kismet encounters creatures from Paper World. With puppeteers Amy Kellett, Matt Reckeweg, Amie Root, and Genna Davidson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

At the top of the show, spectators are invited into the playing space to observe the puppets in their natural habitat, a motley collection of stacked drawers and cabinets. It may seem strange to think of puppets having a “natural habitat,” but that’s exactly what Wit’s End has given us. While the audience members wander around the stage, the puppets go about their lives, interacting with the scenery, with each other, and occasionally with the audience members’ shoes. Although Kismet is the company’s first full length show for adults, the company’s overall experience is immediately evident. The main cast of characters in Kismet are constructed from bits and pieces of house-hold objects, but in the hands of the talented puppeteers (Cecilia Cackley, Genna Davidson, Amy Kellett, Matt Reckeweg, and Amie Root) they show an amazing amount of personality. Even before the play technically starts, we are given a sense of the world we are entering.

And what a world it is! Or two worlds, I should say. The play opens in a world made of objects, a bits-and-pieces society where individual puppets carve out their niche living in drawers and cabinets. After Kismet’s home is destroyed by Demon Birds, he flees to another world where the puppets are made of paper. And while the puppetry becomes slightly more traditional, with finger puppets and marionettes replacing manipulated objects, the puppets themselves are just as impressive (the Demon Birds and Jelly Bird are particular favorites). Where the object world is populated by individuals, the paper world is a place populated by species, a true ecology – the combination is like a found-object Fraggle Rock. But the biggest difference between the two places is their reaction to death and loss. When the paper world suffers at the hands of the Demon Birds, the puppets there are able to piece themselves back together (quite literally) and move on with their lives. It’s a useful lesson for Kismet to learn.

Lightbulb Head, a character from Cabinet World.  With puppeteer Amie Root. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Lightbulb Head, a character from Cabinet World.
With puppeteer Amie Root. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

So if the puppets and puppetry are both excellent, what’s the problem? While Wit’s End has given us an amazing cast of characters, the company presents moments and relationships in search of a narrative. Under the guidance of Director Carmen C. Wong, the puppeteers excel at bringing their creatures into emotional life. Every interaction is worth watching. Kismet’s attempts to learn how to fly, his welcoming of Swirl Dancer (a newly made puppet) into the object world, or his excitement when he discovers how to properly interact with Gecko (a paper lizard) and Chompy (a voracious accordion folder) are a delight to watch. And the cast’s ability to convey some incredibly complex relationships is impressive. But the overall narrative leaves too many questions unanswered. Are the Demon Birds evil, or a force of nature? Why does Kismet leave the object world instead of fixing it? What is the relationship between the two worlds? And why does Kismet never return to his original home? When Chompy finally makes its way to the paper world, letting us know that others had survived the Demon Bird attacks, I thought we had reached the half-way point of the production. I was startled to learn that, instead, we had come to the end.

In some ways, Kismet is burdened by the weight of its own unexplored mythology. Even the character names I’m using in this review never appear in the entirely silent puppet show. After the performance, the audience is granted access to boards that explain the puppets and their roles in the world of Kismet. Retroactively, the play makes total sense, start to finish. But in understanding that, I had to readjust the narrative that I had created in my mind. The company is caught between a rock and a hard place. If they give the audience the puppet bios first, it can keep the audience from fully “discovering” the work by applying their own interpretations to the action. But if the audience comes out of the play to find out that their take on the overall story or a particular character was incorrect, the effect can be alienating.

In Kismet, Wit’s End has given us a tantalizing glimpse into a world that is clearly much larger and more complex than they have time to show us. My frustration with the piece comes from that fact – with such talented puppeteers and with such an amazing world to explore, who wouldn’t want more?kismet-header-rgbThe Amazing & Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet plays through May 19, 2013 at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW in Washington, D.C. Purchase tickets online.