Such spectacular invention was on display in Ashes as well. At one point, the pyromaniac’s chest appears to be ablaze from within, as if offering a window to his fiery soul. The flames look real, igniting speculation about whether they had to inform the fire marshal. As it turns out, the effect is achieved simply through video projection.
But this obvious showmanship isn’t the whole bag of tricks. There is a subtlety to the puppeteer’s craft as practiced by such masterful, meticulous companies as Plexus Polaire in works like Ashes.
At the start of the play, the stage is dark except for Dag (the pyromaniac), who lights a lighter center stage. (This flame is real.) He seems to be far away, but, actually, the puppet is simply small. We suddenly see somebody else lighting one in front of the stage to the left; this is the writer (full-sized human being Lukawski), smoking, crouching over his laptop, a pile of papers at his feet.
It’s slow going at first as the two stories are told in more or less alternate scenes—that of the pyromaniac at home with his family or carrying around a fuel can, a backdrop of houses way up in the distance, as if on a hill; and that of the writer struggling to type the story of the pyromaniac. When the writer stops typing, the figures on stage fade into darkness; when he gets back to work, the figures reappear.
The writer is dealing with other problems as well, such as his alcoholism and his father’s death, which are both represented in some elusive symbolic moments. An elk is cut open, and his father is taken out of the innards and placed on his deathbed. The writer helps him smoke, and the puppet portraying the father exhales the smoke, which curls up into the air and magically forms the text: “The last thing I did to my father was lie to him.”
At a certain point, the writer’s struggle with his work becomes a battle with his subject in a series of increasingly vivid metaphors brought to life: first with tiny Dag on his back, then wrestling with a human-sized Dag and a large wolf. The story literally heats up, and simultaneously turns chilling, when the homes on the hill one by one burst into flames in the background, and in the foreground we see the townsfolk, their faces literal masks of sorrow, carrying their children to safety.
What happens in wordless, visual theatre is that audience members project their own feelings onto the puppets.
No words are ever spoken in Ashes. Only a few lines of text are projected onto a scrim. But Guro Skumsnes Moe’s score is a constant accompaniment to the action and helps set the tone for each moment—eerie and ethereal in the early scenes, accelerating in intensity, urgency, percussiveness, alarm, and then slow and sad.
Even when we don’t completely grasp what’s going on, the music, the wordlessness, the chiaroscuro lighting all make the piece deeply affecting.
After the performance, I talked to members of the company, who helped explain why this is so. (Aspeli, the director and principal puppet designer, was touring in Europe, and planning for her next work, Moby Dick.)
Ashes begins slowly, they explained, so that the audience can become oriented to the world that has been created. It also helps build tension. The company starts with the small puppets to give audiences a literal overview. Once we begin to understand the narrative, then the characters become human-size.