A wood-carved protagonist, enduring the brutality of war

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A wood-carved protagonist, enduring the brutality of war
The puppeteers Faniswa Yisa and Roshina Ratnam with Michael K’s mother, Anna during a stage adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Life & Times of Michael K,” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Nov. 28, 2023. The show, about a man’s struggles during a fictional South African conflict, includes actors alongside a puppet version of Michael K. (Amir Hamja/The New York Times)

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- Midmorning on Tuesday at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a puppet named Michael K had just grabbed a mug when director Lara Foot called a pause to the action onstage.

“Let’s stop here,” she said, and he did so instantly.

Still clasping the mug in his right hand, he gazed at her with black, glass-bead eyes like someone who had been taken by surprise. Even frozen midgesture, he was subtle, human, uncanny — a striking alchemy of art and imagination.

In “Life & Times of Michael K,” based on the 1983 novel of the same name by South African-born Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, this puppet is the sinewy, carved-wood star, designed and created by Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Co. At two-thirds the size of an average adult human, Michael is operated bunraku-style by a team of three puppeteers. Craig Leo, the show’s puppet master, is in charge of Michael’s head and right arm.

Manipulation is not the job, though. To Leo, it’s more a matter of following the puppet’s lead.

“There’s something strange that happens,” he said in an interview in the lobby of St. Ann’s, game to chat despite feeling under the weather. “You have these moments — and you kind of aim for them, and you hope that you can do it as much as possible — where he just comes alive. It’s when the synchronicity really clicks in between the three puppeteers, and then all of a sudden, you’re holding him, and he becomes incredibly light. And he’s suddenly almost moving on his own.”

Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel is set amid a fictional South African civil war, whose Kafkaesque landscape Michael navigates as he attempts to take his ailing mother, Anna, on the long journey from Cape Town back to the countryside she loved as a girl. The play opened Wednesday at St. Ann’s and runs through Dec. 23.

Foot, the artistic director of the Baxter Theater Centre at the University of Cape Town, adapted the novel in collaboration with Handspring. Kohler and Basil Jones, a fellow Handspring founder, directed the production’s puppetry. At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, the show impressed critics, with The New York Times calling it “stylish” and a “standout.”

“Puppets hold philosophy in them, and poetry,” Foot said in a separate interview. “Coetzee’s work, some of his work, lends itself to that because there’s a lot of thought-provoking narrative.”

Having long wanted to work with Handspring, she thought a puppet would be perfect to embody Coetzee’s Michael — a gardener whose cleft lip makes people think him inferior — as a kind of Everyman confronting existential questions.

“When I sent ‘Michael K’ to Basil and Adrian,” she said, “Adrian had already read it, and it was one of his favorite novels. We agreed that it would just be Michael, his mother, the children and the animals that would be puppets. And the rest of the world would be the context of the war.”

So the company also includes five actors. One of its four puppeteers, Leo, arrived in New York this week from Mexico. That was the terminus of his nearly three-month tour across North America with the giant child refugee puppet Little Amal, who along with the horses of “War Horse” — another show on Leo’s resume — is among Handspring’s most famous creations.

After stilt walking to operate Amal from the inside, unable to see what her face was doing, Leo was palpably pleased to be reunited with Michael, a puppet he has worked with on and off for more than two years, and one he could keep his eye on from the outside.

“If you look at his left side of his face and his right side of his face, there are different expressions,” he said. “He has kind of a tortured look on the one side; I don’t know how else to describe it. From the other side, he’s actually very beautiful. He’s a really handsome man. In the light, his expression changes all the time. It catches all those carved lines in the wood.”

Of the dozen-plus puppets in the play, there are four Michaels: a baby, glimpsed only briefly yet made, Foot said, with legs fully capable of kicking; a child; a miniature adult; and the main adult, with a head carved from Malaysian jelutong, legs of carbon fiber and ribs of Indonesian cane.

“The joints are very finely made,” Leo said. “It breaks fingers because they’re so delicate. We just glue them back on. But as a whole, the puppet has never broken.”

Which is lucky, because there is only one of him — no backup.

“I’ve thought about that often, actually,” Leo said. “Should we be locking him up at nights? It’s a work of art, you know.”

To him, Michael is also a magnet for empathy, as puppets are, generally — and a portal into the story in a way that a human actor would not be.

“He holds the pathos,” Leo said. “He holds it even when he’s hanging on his puppet rack.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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