For the Love of Loutky

prague puppet theatreThere's something perfect about seeing a puppet show in Prague. Watching marionettes sing opera with motionless or flapping mouths somehow fits with the bizarre dark humor of the city. These wooden faces express the most dramatic of human emotions-lust, jealousy, terror-but with a surrealist, weirdly hilarious quality. Thus emerges puppetry's dialogue between fantasy and reality, where actors made of flesh merge with actors made of wood.

Drawing on a centuries-old tradition, Czech puppet theater (loutkové divadlo) is even today considered the best in Europe and among the best worldwide. Puppets have always had a magical and symbolic role; they first appeared here in 12th-century religious ceremonies. In the 16th century, traveling comedians from Germany and Austria began to perform puppet shows at Czech markets and in the houses of the nobility. A hundred years later, Italian string marionettes migrated north and began to replace human actors, both symbolically and sometimes literally, when actors left the company suddenly.

Puppet theater flourished during the Baroque era, with its love of technology and visual effects. By the mid-18th century, many Czechs were specialized puppeteers, developing a distinctly Czech model of puppetry. The stiff and stylized movements of the puppets inspired the puppeteers to adopt affected and exaggerated voices.

Many puppet companies were composed of families who lived itinerant lives on the road. Matej Kopecký was a puppet great whose direct descendents still perform in Prague. Following a period of stagnation, puppetry re-emerged in the 1920s, when the characters Spejbl and Hurvínek appeared and theaters sprang up in Prague and Plzen. Prague's Ríše Loutek Theater was founded in 1920 by legendary sculptor Vojtech Sucharda, who restored the figures on the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square, destroyed by fire during the Second World War, and made superb marionettes. The amphitheater-shaped, Art-Nouveau theater is today inhabited by the National Marionette Theater and the Ríše Loutek company.

In Prague you'll find shows for tourists, shows for Czech kids, and a few artistic shows for adults. The tourist shows are convenient and entertaining-but if you want a more authentic Czech experience, seek out one of Prague's art-oriented or folk puppetry companies. You can enjoy them for a much lower ticket price.

No performances are in English, but the shows are still visually interesting even when the storyline is opaque. Arrive early so you can claim the best seats in the front rows.

Tourist shows
Prague's original tourist-oriented company is the National Marionette Theater, which staged the city's first marionette version of Don Giovanni and has played over 3,000 performances of this show since 1991. Their marionettes are larger than most (60 cm high and 6-12 kilos), giving them a stiff and expressionless, surreal quality. In the opera that Mozart composed as a gift to Prague, the roguish Don scores with female puppets but meets with harsh punishment. The show is absurdist, clever, and bawdy, featuring scenes such as a jealous marionette wrecking a wedding banquet and a Rocky Horror-esque water episode involving the audience. The show plays in the Ríše Loutek theater, which features an orchestra pit ruled over by a drunken Mozart.

For 90 CZK you can purchase a program in any of five languages (Czech notably absent), handily packaged with the 1994 A-Z Prague Culture Guide. The four Czechs in the audience all had free passes from the usher. "The Czechs think puppet theater is only for children," says Petr Vodicka, who has managed the company for 12 years, but, "the tourists like it because it's something original and special to Prague."

Vodicka acknowledges that their primary goal is not art. "It's work, it's money. It's not easy to make money in the puppet business, but we can pay our puppeteers better than other companies can." It would be costly to do a new performance, he says, because of their investment in the current repertoire of marionettes and advertising. Still, even after handling the Mozart puppet in 1,200 performances, puppeteer "Lou" says, "Istill find it interesting. No two performances are the same."

The International Institute of Marionette Art (IIMA) is the Starbucks of the puppet world, boasting four theaters, a marionette museum (under renovation), and eight shops selling puppets citywide. They are currently showing Don Giovanni and the Mariage of Figaro with marionettes and Cats with hand puppets illuminated by black light. Their version of DG features smaller, fluidly moving marionettes controlled from above and below on a multilevel set. The show is slapstick and funny, although watching a puppet sing a recorded aria in Italian can be yawn-inducing, no matter how much she shimmies and shakes for dramatic effect.

Avant-garde, artistic
If you are looking for a truly original, non-touristy performance for adults, check out Buchty a Loutky (buns and puppets), who play at Švandovo Divadlo several times a month. In Pomsta (Revenge), a show loosely based on the story of the Count of Monte Cristo, stage actors play alongside dolls, marionettes, found objects, and even a puppet fashioned out of an overstuffed office chair on roller skates and controlled by jumper cables. Spectators sit at small tables on the same level as the stage, an intimate setting that encourages the players to interact with the audience. The piece is funny and touching, and succeeds as modern art because even if you don't really understand it, it somehow makes sense.

"We hope our work is still the best," says actor Marek Becka. "We want to make more than puppet theater," he continues, "[puppetry] is a difficult kind of art to understand. It's about exploring the relationship between the puppets and actors." In Becka's opinion, the skills of Czech puppeteers are more highly developed than those of Czech stage actors. One reason for this, he says, is that puppetry flourished under Communism while stage theater did not. The party viewed puppetry as innocuous entertainment for children, and "gave a lot of money to puppetry." Although party leaders approved scripts in advance, actors sometimes ad-libbed political hints during performances.

Becka says that puppetry is still supported much more here than in other countries-by the public, tourists, as well as the state. Prague's Academy of Arts (DAMU) even offers a 2- to 4-year degree in "alternative and puppet theater direction." Like most of the country's puppeteers, Becka is a graduate of this program, and now teaches courses and workshops there, some in English.

Shows for all ages
The world-famous Theatre Drak combines traditional puppetry techniques with modern ideas. Their Jak šel hloupý Honza do sveta is based on a mélange of fairytales starring hloupý Honza (silly Jack). The actors switch between singing the story as a trio of human musicians, then rushing into a box to play the same characters as hand puppets. "I want to be your puppet on a broken string," keens the lovestruck Honza in a catchy theme song. During the performance I attended, the box fell apart and revealed the performers, who recovered gracefully after a moment of surprise.

Drak has a large workshop onsite where a dedicated carver makes marionettes out of lime wood, or polystyrene for very large puppets. A puppet's head and knees are attached by joints, while the arms are loosely fastened. "We are always coming up with new technologies, like scientists," says designer Marek Zakostelecký. Founded more than 40 years ago, Drak plays close to 300 performances a year, one-third in Hradec Králové (125 km east of Prague) and the remaining shows in surrounding towns. The company has toured in the U.S. and Canada, Japan, Australia, and all over Europe, and they occasionally come to Prague. "We use dark humor and lots of word plays. We always try to make it interesting for us. Most people think puppets are just for children. But when you see the parents in the audience, they are always laughing too."

Divadlo Minor is a popular, historic company with a new home by Prague's Vodicková tram stop. The company performs shows for kids almost daily, and adults several times a month. The large space includes a "loutková kavarna" and a workshop where they make puppets on site. Another innovative musical puppet theater is Brno's prize-winning Radost Theater, founded in 1949.

Traditional folk puppetry
The characters Spejbl and Hurvínek, brought to life in the 1920s by Josef Skupa, still perform on stage at Divadlo Spejbla a Hurvínka. The legendary duo, along with their friend Mánicka and dog Žeryk, enjoy new adventures. This large company is famous among Czechs; they have toured four continents, produced books and CDs, and now perform daily in Dejvice. Skupa founded the theater in 1945 after escaping from a WWII prison camp.

The Ríše Loutek (Realm of Puppets) company performs in the Ríše Loutek theater on weekends. Kids and their parents pack the house, chattering through the performance. The company's rotating repertoire includes O pejskovi a kocicce (Dog and Cat), based on the book by Josef Capek. The Naivni Theater Liberec is a respected puppet theater in Liberec, with performances aimed at children.

Upcoming festivals and special shows
Each year the IIMA sponsors The World Festival of Puppet Art, an international competition of puppet groups performing from over 30 countries. This year's festival runs from May 30 through June 6. Shows will play in six theaters (admission 50 CZK) and every evening in Old Town Square, and there will be a puppet parade through the city center.

During the first week of July, the city of Chrudim, 100 km east of Prague, will host Loutkárský Chrudim, an annual puppet festival. You can find details at www.chbeseda.cz/. Chrudim is also home to the Museum of Puppets.

František & Vera, a renowned husband-wife puppetry team who were once part of Theatre Drak, will play their famous Piskanderdula in March at Brno's Moravská Galerie. Check www.moravska-galerie.cz for details. Says puppeteer Lou: "It is really creative, clear, and absolute theater." The Galerie also has an exhibit about the history of puppetry running until March 14.

If you are looking to buy a puppet, and fancy something more original than the cookie-cutter characters in old town, there are two excellent stores on Kampa Island's U Lužického Seminare Street: the Galerie Marionette, No. 7, and Marionety Obchod, No. 5. The puppets here are nearly museum pieces, all hand-carved in the Czech Republic, and a way to remember something special and unique about Prague.