The Trouble Puppet Theater’s production of Riddley Walker opened at the Salvage Vanguard Theater last Wednesday to a packed house. Adapted from Russell Hoban's beloved science-fiction novel of the same name, the story takes place a few thousand years in the future in a world devastated by nuclear war. The story follows a young boy, Riddley, and his struggles and suffering as he transitions from a boy into the leader of his nomadic people—all while navigating a dangerous post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Connor Hopkins, Trouble Puppet's Artistic Director, Puppet Designer and Director, found the book years ago at a local bookshop and felt an immediate connection to the plot and incredibly bizarre language.
“When I got to the part in the book where a puppet show takes place, I knew I had to turn it into a play,” explains Hopkins. He got in touch with author Russell Hoban, who was encouraging about the idea of turning his story into something that would translate well into puppet theater.
The show opens with the human cast, costumed in frayed hoods and dirty faces, narrating the story with peculiar accents, a strange mash-up of Irish and English. As the play progresses it becomes apparent that they are collectively speaking as Riddley Walker. The language is difficult to pick up at times, due mainly to the slang that Hoban uses in the book.
The talent of the puppeteers is undeniable; the movements are so natural and flow so seamlessly that you forget there are sometimes up to three people controlling one puppet at a time. The puppets seem to take a life of their own, moving on their own free will. The Trouble Puppet Theater derives its tabletop puppetry technique from Bunraku, an ancient Japanese form of puppet theater. In traditional Bunraku it takes decades to master the puppets—20 years until your can control the puppet head on your own. While the Trouble Puppet productions are nowhere near that strict, it is easy to imagine the hard work and choreography that is needed to master the art form.
There’s darkness to the story that is enhanced by the puppets themselves. Made from wood, cloth, wire, pipe, paper and paint, the puppets give the characters a haunted and sallow feeling. It’s not only tabletop puppets that make up the show—there’s also shadow and hand puppets interjected in Riddley’s story. The shadow puppetry tells a vivid and whimsical folk back-story, while the tabletop puppets watch and interact with their own in-play hand puppet show.
“This is the biggest production we’ve done so far,” says Hopkins. Between the lighting, the stage, props and music, it’s easy to fall into this post-apocalyptic world where wild dogs run rampant and death is all too expected. The multi-level stages add dimension and authenticity, letting the audience feel that they're following the puppets across more vast spaces.
This is not your average puppet show; Trouble Puppet Theater’s Riddley Walker is masterfully told, and performed. The unique story, non-traditional to begin with on paper, lends itself well to this art form—be sure not to miss it.
Riddley Walker will be run September 29 - October 16, Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 6 pm.