The puppet masters

2011-09-03 13:51

Rob Murray, the founder of Cape Town-based theatre company FTH:K, has created another unique piece.

Called Benchmarks, the three-hander debuted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and is being performed as part of the Out the Box Festival of Puppetry and Visual Performance in the Mother City this month.

Told entirely through mime – the actors all wear masks – Benchmarks brings together three different characters with unexpected and touching results.

One of the most innovative elements of this production is the set design by designer, puppeteer and performer Craig Leo. As a performer, Leo was part of the Tony award-winning War Horse.

For this production, he created old-fashioned wardrobes that serve as the different locations where the actors interact.

The wardrobe doors open to reveal rooms. One wardrobe houses the Home Affairs office where one character, played by Daniel Robertson, works. The other wardrobe reveals the lonely, claustrophobic home of an elderly widow, played by Liezl de Kock.

The third character, a Zimbabwean immigrant, played by Thumeka Mzayiya, pointedly has no home. She has to take refuge on an open bench that informs the title of this human drama.

It doesn’t matter how many masked productions I see, I still marvel at the actors’ ability to convey their emotions and tell the story without the benefit of facial expressions or words.

The cast use the subtleties of movement and universal sign language to tell a story that not only represents one we all know, but one that is capable of being understood by just about anyone.

This ties into one of FTH:K’s main objectives – to not only work with deaf actors, but provide entertainment that can be accessed by the hard of hearing as easily as it can be by anyone else.

The masks are so masterfully crafted that if you ask anyone who saw Benchmarks during its debut at the National Arts Festival, they’d swear that the expressions on the masks changed.

This is impossible, but it points to the incredible talent of the mask maker – in this case Cristina Salvoldi.

Salvoldi has worked extensively in the film and theatre industry, and is a sculptor who “finds inspiration in the detail and in the humour that lies in the imperfection of (human) nature’’.

Murray directs this piece, but he said in preshow interviews that Benchmarks was very much the product of a workshopping process between him and the cast of three.

Each of the actors bring their own experiences to the production and, needless to say, the spectre of violent crime rears its bloody head, as does xenophobia, loneliness, the joy of helping others and the simple pleasure of making human contact.

» Benchmarks will be performed at the Out the Box festival at the Little Theatre on Thursday and Friday this week. Book at Computicket 

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