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Essay about the serie extracted of el oficio de vivir

Club Totting Puppets

Audience stalls. Golden velvet and curtains. An audience of puppets. This is what you see when the curtain opens. You are at home. The characters are the actors, who are also the audience, who are both in and out of the stage. Theatre-in-theatre. No culturalist mannerisms. With the Club-Toting Puppet’s intimidating voice: when centuries of theatre are distilled and reduced to its innermost essence at the hands of the puppet master: several generations of experience ooze theatre through the long years of handicraft.

The craft of handling the club is one to be learned just as any true knowledge: from the receiving end of the stick. It is an experience, a skill, a style, a spirit. Either you have it or you haven’t it. Paradoxically, most modern puppet masters don’t have it. Why not? Because they have sold out to leniency, to pedagogy, to the hypocrisy of docile, moralistic messages, to the mediocre banality of alleged modern, correct, progressive ideas: the non-violence of forms —which hides fratricidal wars within its very bosom—, the non-aggressive behavior —which hides its evil twin— and, ultimately, the smooth, polished forms which settles shapes the spirit into self-indulgence. The all-void culture of made-for-grammar-school theatre.

If the puppet synthesizes life —that of a character, a myth, a flaw, a virtue— this puppet theatre synthesizes nothingness, emptiness. That is why it bores the audience: the kids make a mock of it while the adults use the time to read the newspaper. Their achievement: teenagers despise this form of art and turn to the streets —which is their only advantage.

But let’s get back to the start. Curtains go up revealing an Arabian Nights set. The puppets talk with an expected self-confidence. Straight to the point. Their faces caricature their character’s nature. The actor’s theatre is mapped into cardboard. Sometimes the motion speeds up, just like in silent cinema. The sets are genuinely theatrical: papier-mâché, painted clothes. The situation is defined in four sentences. Everything oozes synthesis. This is the so-called “Club-Toting Drama”, characterized by (1) radically stripped-down presentation and development of the subject theme, (2) in-stage action, motion and manipulation radically stripped-down through a generally fast-paced choreography that underscores the discourse with broad, bold strokes, and (3) radically stripped-down set design, which appears trimmed down to the bare bones in a purely representational synthesis through a cheeky approach to the theatrical conventions.

However, this is no tableau but a TV. And the TV set is a rear window to the theatre hall, which, in turn, is a theatre in a theatre...

There is no beating around the bush in the telling of this story. Legendary Scheherazade, a nursemaid for the Sultan, explains how Fatima is kidnapped by Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; Aladdin watches secretly how this happens and enlists Fatima’s boyfriend Sinbad to rescue her. Then there is the cave with the fabled mouse, fabulous treasures, a dusty lamp and an eager Genie who does not hesitate to get out at the first chance. The denouement is up: a ride in a flying carpet for a first wish, an elephant to shake off the thief’s henchmen  as a second wish, and the release of Fatima in the third and final wish, with the requisite duel to the death between Sinbad and Ali Baba. All in just 13 minutes—standard length of an episode of this series.

The 13-minute TV format matches the club-toting puppet spirit: flash, synthesis, economy. Nevertheless, the camera and shooting trickery widen the script’s bare thread and create a spectacular world of angles and depths in the imagination of audience. The richly detailed sets are treated with a crafty preciosity and become dioramas where the puppets move around at will. A cinematographic approach of close-up shots, midsized shots and pan shots enlivens the action and the characters with a reality and a pace which would be impossible in fixed theatre. On top of that there is f/x, a lighting that serves the story and the sets, and a rich soundtrack that accompanies and spices up the action with efficient sound effects.

The voices do not betray the puppet theatre spirit, but emphasize it, especially when the female ones yell or cry: they are reminiscent of the old trademark voice of Pulcinella or the Spanish Cristóbal. The dialogues resort to sass, to metaphorical preposterousness, to spicy jokes, to mixed-up historical periods, but they never become confusing.

Don Juan's surname is here “de los infiernos” (from hell): the devil wants to play the famous role, so he decides to "come up" and take over the part. There are meta-theatrical shots aplenty: the stage, the audience in the stalls, and now the innards of the theatre: the upper part of the backstage, where the operators lift and lower the curtain, and even the very same owner's office. The three shots, together with the set of hell —certain to be located right under the theatre— are mutually crossed and allow Don Juan's story to be told in just 13 minutes. As for the monk-like cast which inhabits the convent where the story takes place, it is a one-off take from the sources of popular burlesque. The Mother Superior speaks with a fluty, coarse voice and hardly bothers to hide her habit of drinking alcohol with her breakfast. As for Inés, her lips and cheeks' color reveals a high-octane inner life that is way more earthly than heavenly. Don Juan looks much more like a Cuckolded Juan than a Devil Juan. Ultimately, when the sofa scene looks ready for Inés to devour the hellish hero, the curtain operator falls down from the sky bringing down everything: the audience throws tomatoes to the stage and the devil flees home from an upper world that is more dangerous than hell itself because of those weird beings called puppets.

But nowhere does the cruel, naked synthesis of the Club-Toting Puppet fly so high as in Little Red Riding Hood's tale, a theme seemingly taken from the most arcane, gruesome guts of our species' collective unconscious. It is not surprising that Maeste Travieso (Master Naughty), in his will to relate to traditional puppetry at its best, has added it to his repertoire. The Wolf's tail wobbles in a most impudent way, apparently hinting that the story will stray towards love pursuits at the third stage. And yet Maese Travieso does not succumb to psychologism but rather develops the story in a ruthless manner. To make it more bearable, the cruelty is exaggerated until a self-parody: after the Wolf's feast, the Hunter frees the captives ripping the animal's belly with his knife in a gorish finale from which nobody escapes—even the audience is splashed by its share of wolf blood... A horror theatre only puppets can afford to perform without offence to the physical, mental and moral health of kids and adults, much as many a demure moralist would like to disprove.

In The Enlightening Encyclopedia, Maese Travieso resorts to historical facts and tells us about a most enlightened, defining moments: the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, in Paris. The Libertarians are here Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert and Mademoiselle Liberté. The ridiculed baddies are the French Royalty, the last in a Sun King-exploiting lineage that only in the guillotine would wake from their Absolutist drunkenness, along with their court of aristocrats and flatterers. What is the Encyclopedia and how was it originated? This episode will enlighten you in just 13 minutes. In this case, the indispensable element of parody is the defining metaphor of the century, represented here in a plain way: the Lights which enlightened the eighteenth century appear as flashes of a whimsical god, and the “enlightened” hail them with a progressive, thoughtless prudishness, while the Absolutists receive them with anger and try to shield themselves, like devils trying to flee from high-powered sacred light bulbs. The end is not less metaphorical: the “bad guys” end up loaded with scores of culture, the famous Encyclopedia that smashes the aristocrats and turns them into the laughing stock of the population of Paris.

These are all various examples of how the Club-Toting performing language opens the theatre to myths. Age-old legends, hidden worlds, archetypical characters, collective fears from the arcane origins of our species, lights from a century that we insist on calling Enlightened... The myth stems from Maese Travieso’s theatre source and flows into every story, character and episode it tells. A journey into origins, to the primeval references of craft and tradition through a streamlining of languages and contents.

Carmelo Hernando has looked for “a new television formula for all audiences” and, seeing the results, it would seem he has found it. The trick is resorting to puppets and, more precisely, to the old school of the club-toting puppet theatre: soaking up its libertarian, fresh spirit, its arcane voices that speak straight to the audience without any of the childish subterfuges of pedagogy or the deceitful pursuits of soap-opera psychologism. His episodes are small mouthfuls of fresh air. All parents need not to worry: Maese Travieso’s stories will have a soothing, revitalizing effect—and an always needed invigorating, relaxing one for the adults.

Barcelona, 1998
© Toni Rumbau
© Fundación Caja Rioja
Logroño, 1998
I.S.B.N. 84-89740-13-5
D.L. LR-247-198
I.S.B.N. 84-89740-13-5
D.L. AS-2259-2000