‘Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet’ at Pointless Theatre Co. at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint

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FOUR STARS
Have you ever thought that the ballet needed more puppets? Or is it just me? For those of us troubled by this glaring oversight, Pointless Theatre Company brings us their technically impressive and entertaining – but narratively unsatisfying – version of the classic fairy tale.

Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet is a reworking of Pointless’s 2010 debut work at the Capital Fringe Festival, with “completely redesigned puppets, scenery, staging, and sound design.” Loosely based on the original staging of the Tchaikovsky ballet, the production uses ballet as its main visual inspiration. The set, designed by Patti Kalil, is a delightful mix of grand theatre and school play. Ensemble members and puppeteers (Lee Gerstenhaber, Madeline Key, Devin Mahoney, Robert Christopher Manzo, Rachel Menyuk, David Lloyd Olson, Ruth Anne Watkins, and Scott Whalen) wear approximations of ballet outfits and flit across the stage in approximations of ballet movements. An abruptly truncated version of Tchaikovsky’s score provides the majority of the production’s sound – as in ballet, the actors remain silent throughout the show.

Photo courtesy of Pointless Theatre Company.
Photo courtesy of Pointless Theatre Company.

The plot takes its cue from the Tchaikovsky version of the fairy tale as well. Peeved at not being invited to the christening of Princess Aurora, the evil fairy Carabosse curses Aurora to die on her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spindle. The Lilac Fairy eases this curse to simply cause a deep, hundred year sleep. At the end of the hundred years, Aurora (and the rest of the kingdom, who follow the princess into sleep) are awakened by a valiant Prince who breaks the curse with a kiss and defeats Carabosse.

Unfortunately, you need to know the story in advance to really follow this production. The show opens with a comedic dumbshow “ballet” of the entire story, and it was a perfect metaphor for the production as a whole – well meaning, enthusiastic, and slightly muddled. I’m familiar with several versions of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale and still had trouble parsing out the important details. I can’t imagine someone unfamiliar with the story would have understood that Carabosse was not invited (as opposed to accidentally invited), or even been able to follow the mechanics of the curse. A few characters were added to the story, and while they were performed well I’m still not sure who they’re supposed to be. Of all the aspects to borrow from ballet, “narrative opacity” is not what I would have chosen.

If that assessment sounds harsh, it’s largely the result of high expectations. Pointless has been on an upward trajectory since their first appearance, and my previous experiences with their work left me nothing short of blown away. Technically speaking, the company continues to impress. Each puppet introduced to the show was a new revelation: the simple-but-charming live hand puppetry used on the king and queen, the exposed joints of the Lilac Fairy, the oversized and horrific Carabosse. While less visually impressive than the villainess, Aurora and the Prince are particularly expressive; each puppet is operated by three puppeteers to allow a specificity of movement sometimes lacking from the actors’ choreography. Watching a puppet pirouette and plie is worth the price of admission.

There are other high notes as well. Pointless’s ensemble members bring an energy and humor to the production that smooths over the roughest aspects of the production. Director Matt Reckeweg has a keen visual sense, with each of Tchaikovsky’s movements ending in a photo-worthy tableaux. All in all, Sleeping Beauty is an entertaining hour of theatre – just make sure to read a synopsis first.

Running time: One hours, with no intermission.

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Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet plays through May 3, 2014 at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW in Washington, D.C. Purchase tickets online.