Review 1: The Wars of Heaven, Pt. 1 by Trouble Puppet Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs

Puppets and death. Puppets and injustice. People and puppets. There's a transitivity there that  haunts Trouble Puppetmaster Connor Hopkins, a brooding concern about a world out of kilter that informs his choice of subjects -- Frankenstein, Sinclair's The JungleRiddley Walker -- and his treatment of them. His original juvenile adventure story The Crapstall Street Boys takes us through a world of exploitation and cannibalism far worse than that depicted by Dickens.


(photo: Steve Rogers)


Now Hopkins is reaching for the whole ball of wax. Or rather the moral dilemma of mankind on this globe. Or, to qualify futher, The Wars of Heaven now burning brightly in the dark box at the Salvage Vanguard is just the first third of a story set very loosely within the mythos of Milton's Paradise Lost. Hopkins and his acolytes, garbed in monkish robes, expect to complete this visual, aural and verbal meditation with continuations in 2016 and 2017.



The action opens at the battle of Stalingrad in 1942, where a pair of emaciated puppet figures in ragged Russian uniforms huddle in battlefield ruins, sniping and being shot at. A truly cadaverous figure appears, a skelton in a greatcoat wearing a German steel helmet. The junior Russian fighter is alarmed. The two older opponents engage in combat -- not with weapons but with sour words, wrangling with the familiar disrespect of old enemies.



(photo: Steve Rogers)



Projections of the desolate battlefield landscape, apt sound design and Justin Sherburn's powerfully eerie choral music supported by a cello line enforce the otherworldliness of this epic. We learn that these two ethereal figures have fought one another across the ages, learning to feel a commonality even as they kill one another. It's hinted that the conflicts of humankind throughout history have arisen from the struggle between the two great unseen armies embodied by these figures. That message is emphasized in succeeding scenes of slavery and revolt in ancient Egypt, pitched battle between Roman legions and Scots tribes, and a return to Stalingrad.


Milton's massive allegory Paradise Lost is less a framework for Hopkins than a trampoline. Milton's work is a tale of good and evil, civil war, sin and retribution. Working in concentrated space, time and medium Hopkins settles squarely upon the tension between hierarchical social order on one hand and individual freedom and responsibility on the other. That dialectic is embodied by opposing armies of heaven: the loyalists (fideles) led by Archangel Michael are advocates of a paternalistic hierarchical order; the rebels led by the female Archangel Lucifer reject the order imposed without explanation by The Father.


(photo: Steve Rogers)


Our brief presence on fields of combat is succeeded by an awe-inspiring visual and musical invocation of the Creation. The company of eight performer/puppeteers moves beyond its familiar bunraku-style puppetry where three or more visible but muffled puppeteers manipulate figures. Bolstered by Sherburn's powerful music, the puppeteers take us back to the beginning. On the huge screen at center stage the silhouette of The Father appears, manipulating light, shadow and sound to create the universe. Noel Gaulin in silhouette heaves balls of pure light; cities rise, quiver, shift; cutout figures of angels and archangels soar in unnerving depictions of movement. Lucifer and her supporters rebel, and the shadow figures engage in battle. 


(photo: Steve Rogers)Later scenes examine the conquering of the New World, the establishment of the United States (with a lengthy discourse by George Washington, speaking with a busily twisting mouth from the face of the dollar bill), and take us back to Stalingrad.


The Wars of Heaven, Part I offers spectacle and techniques new to the company. Hopkins commented to friends of the company that mastering the techniques of shadow puppetry had proved to be tremendously challenging. He writes sharp, enigmatic and pungent dialogue for the characters (for example, I shivered at the mention of 'the churn and blood of battle'). The piece is not, at least as yet, a meditation on theology, other than to the extent that The Father disappears once Creation is complete. There's none of Milton's Cristology; there's no account of Adam and Eve. Trouble Puppet's concern is tension and conflict in this world, not in the next. The wary mutual regard between the leading characters seems to imply the likelihood of a Hegelian resolution.  But not in Part 1; probably not in Part 2; and it's impossible to know whether Part 3 will posit a hopeful outcome either in our own time or in some future golden age.


As this ambitious original work was being brought from darkness into the swirling semi-light of the Salvage Vanguard Theatre, Hopkins and Caroline Reck, his partner, spouse and also a talented actor-puppeteer, went through the lengthy labor that produced their first child, Clementine. Hope and faith appear to have gained a foothold against the forces of doubt and darkness. May they prosper, all three, along with their unique vision and art.


Click to view program leaflet for The Wars of Heaven, Part 1 

The Wars of Heaven, Pt. 1
by Connor Hopkins and Trouble Puppet Company
Trouble Puppet Theatre Company

April 30 - May 17, 2015
Salvage Vanguard Theater
2803 E Manor Rd
Austin, TX, 78722

Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 6 p.m.

Tickets are $12–20 at BrownPaperTickets

ASL interpretation offered (date TBA).

Group sales welcome. Director/cast talkbacks available for groups of five or more.

 **Not created for children. Contains cursing and violence (war). Probably OK for ages 13+.**