All Strung Up: Imaginary Beasts’ “The Death of Tintagiles”

by Bryce Lambert on November 16, 2012

You have until Saturday night to see Imaginary Beast’s latest installment of their heady and truly unparallelled brand of theater. I didn’t have enough good things to say about their last BCA production, a darkly comic and heavily stylized double feature, and this current production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Death of Tintagiles will only further cement their growing reputation for intelligent and visually rich performance. Although there is little comedy here. The play is dark and weird in both its thematic content and the intellectual zeitgeist in which it was written–Schopenhauerian despondence, the futility of human will against death, and all that. Not only is it heavy material, but the play is written for marionettes and thus is no small technical challenge to put on.

Not surprisingly, Imaginary Beasts’ execution is visually flawless and supports Maeterlinck’s obscure and intellectual text without dropping into pretentiousness. Balancing sincerity–sometimes even a na├»ve purity–with sophistication is what Imaginary Beast Artistic Director Matthew Woods does best. And Tintagiles is actually ideal for Woods’ M.O. of expressive, highly choreographed, and visually heightened theater.

The play tells the simple story of Tintagiles, a young male heir, and an evil queen that basically has a hit out on him. The boy is deposited on the shores near the tower where the queen lives her secluded life, carrying out her evil machinations via a gang of henchmen, and the dark place his sisters inhabit, imprisoned by the queen’s unchallenged power and malice. The sisters set out to save Tintagiles from his death sentence.

The Death of Tintagiles is obviously a difficult story to bring to life on stage, as it’s really just one long drawn out metaphor. On top of that, it’s written as a kind of intentionally lifeless play. Not only is it about death, but it’s a play for marionettes who, like the characters themselves, are manipulated by strings of fate beyond their will. Almost magically, Imaginary Beasts turns Maeterlinck’s dark world view into something more; an order more complex and a whole lot prettier. Parts are acted by people and puppets. Sometimes actors wear masks and other times they’re manipulated by strings woven around the set with spider-like choreography. Sometimes actors appear on-stage beside their puppet counterparts, voicing their parts as the puppets act them out.

Woods and the cast demonstrate vision and a collective execution that exceeds what anyone would expect out of a fringe show. And while perhaps the text could have been cut to condense Maeterlinck’s thesis into something a little more tolerable, the production’s dream-like, but precise, visuals of motion, light, and sound carry it far.

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