Puppets rule in ‘Mount Olympus,’ but the effect ends up wooden
Puppets and theater don’t come to mind often, save for Avenue Q. That Broadway hit knew how to mix its Sesame Street-like puppets with a contemporary storyline.
Theatre Three’s world premiere of Bruce Coleman’s Tales of Mount Olympus tweaks the idea using puppetry to tell the classic stories of gods and monsters from Greek mythology. Coleman, who wrote, directed and designed Mount Olympus, exudes innovation. He mentioned that this show is a built of worldly components of theater. The Greek myths are narrated in American storytelling fashion with Hungarian black lights and Japanese Bunraku puppetry. If only as a whole, they all worked.
The show begins with more primitive puppets. Gaia, or Earth, was a large globe with her face painted on and rotated thanks to the actor in black. Her husband, Uranus, was an interestingly constructed creature made up of Christmas lights. Ultimately though, they came off as school craft projects. This remained the same for the following set of gods, Cronus and Rhea.
Two-dimensional pedestals with large heads depicted the married couple while actors from behind emoted with their hands. When Rhea gives birth, her babies are delivered by a magnificent puppet of of a bird in beautifully done Day-Glo feathers to Cronus who ate them for fear they would revolt and overthrow his power. There is some injected humor here as he burps after each devouring and the bird acts as a busybody telling everyone’s business, but there is nothing compelling here. Actors don’t voice the characters. Instead, they are pre-recorded and acted out. This is more of a disconnect than an effective too, but more on that later.
Before long, we are introduced to the glorious puppets of the gods. We see Aphrodite borne from her shell albeit not nude. Coleman initially planned for that bit of nudity, but construction became an issue. Hades, Poseidon, Hera and others are all brought out in striking puppet form. The faces are bold and can be seen clearly from each seat and two actors control most of the characters with one as the brain, and the other as the body.
Zeus however is part of the stage. His huge face is depicted on a wall with a moveable jaw like Big Tex. Understandably, it depicts his grandiose standing, but it’s also underwhelming. When he speaks, the bottom of his beard scrapes the floor and distracts from everything else.
Act 1 has been filled to the brim with more Greek stories before intermission. The tale of Aphrodite infidelity to Hephaestus by her affair with Ares and Persephone’s trip to the Underworld to become Hades’ wife all play out before the break and feel a little rushed.
The first half lacks any emotional punch and the visuals wear off quickly despite the detailed construction of the sets and puppets. Coleman did allow for humor so there are moments when a puppet is actually funny by way of a gesture or the shakes. When two gods give a high five in Act 2, it’s a priceless, hilarious moment.
Thankfully, this is where Olympus redeems itself somewhat. By telling the whole tale of Perseus and Andromeda (or for the cinematic-minded, Clash of the Titans), there is time to get invested into the characters as Perseus sets out to save Andromeda from the Kracken. The innovation explodes here. When Perseus meets Pegasus, the winged horse provides a gasp of wow and although Medusa isn’t as threatening as she needs to be, it is an inspired piece of work they created. I don’t want to give too much away — either in the Kracken’s appearance or Cerberus’ the three-headed dog — but there is some room for surprise in the show, even if they are small ones.
Act 2 may stick with you, but the show won’t. The play feels much more like a production intended for school-age children, which is hard to reconcile with Theatre Three’s usual professional standards. The recorded narration is also miscast, as the voices are never powerful enough. Zeus should ring through the stage, but instead sounds far from almighty-ness. Actors could have possibly voiced the characters with more depth and emotion but the choice to go with recorded narration takes away from the dramatics. I wanted so much more from this show, which I would have gotten if I was a whole lot younger.
Tales from Mount Olympus at Theatre Three (in the Theatre Too space), 2800 Routh St., Suite 168. Through Nov. 28. $20–$30. 214-871-3300. Theatre3Dallas. com.