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“One Way Street” at Sandglass Theater

A puppet show about Walter Benjamin pushes at the boundaries

Time was, puppet shows were for kids, or for the child in all of us-at least that’s been the conventional view, instilled by Punch and Judy and reinforced by the Muppets. In truth, for centuries, in all cultures, puppets have expressed very grownup ideas in very sophisticated ways. They are powerful reflections of a culture’s deepest hopes and fears and dreams. Part of this power comes from the response a puppet arouses in us, a kind of wonder at looking at ourselves in miniature. Puppets are objects, but in the right hands, they become almost human.

Sandglass Theater of Putney, Vermont, an internationally respected company, is increasingly narrowing the divide between what we think of as “puppet shows” and human-scale theater. In their latest piece, “One-Way Street,” they take that journey several impressive steps further. It’s billed as an “evocation” of the German philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin. Not a biographical narrative, rather it’s a dreamlike sequence of images and vignettes reflecting themes from his writings and his life of exile and flight.

Benjamin was part of the so-called Frankfurt School of critical theorists in pre-war Germany, which included Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm. These unorthodox thinkers, most of whom were Jewish, applied a kind of humanist Marxism to a critique of social systems and modes of thought, envisioning a world of more authentic economic and personal relationships. Most of Benjamin’s colleagues escaped the Nazis and came to America, but Benjamin was trapped at the French border and is thought to have committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo.

Although “One-Way Street” is about a writer, very few words are actually spoken. (Much of the silent action is accompanied by an evocative original score by Paul Dedell.) Occasionally Eric Bass, who portrays Benjamin-both in himself and in the puppet he manipulates-speaks a brief passage from Benjamin’s work. Some of these passages reflect back on the relationship between puppet and human that Sandglass is constantly exploring. Like this one: “For a collector, ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have with objects. It’s not that the objects are alive, but that they give life to the collector.”

In “One-Way Street,” the objects that give Benjamin life are books. Dave Regan’s setting is piled with books-gigantic, dusty volumes that a human being can barely lift. In this landscape of skewed perspectives, humans and puppets interact as equals, sometimes as equivalents. Bass, in a dark double-breasted suit, with a mustache and wire-rim spectacles, takes a shovel to the cover of one of these huge books, and unearths a two-foot puppet representing Benjamin-in a double-breasted suit, mustached and bespectacled. The puppet, in turn, digs into the book and pulls out a miniature lighthouse-symbolizing the beacon of knowledge and the illumination of the spirit. Two other humans share the stage. Merrill Garbus is a workman in overalls, a nod to Benjamin’s proletarian sympathies, and Ines Zeller Bass’s sequined gown suggests a cabaret performer from Weimar Germany, in recognition of Benjamin’s fascination with popular culture. There’s also a flying Angel of History-represented by a quizzical mask trailing yards of ghostlike fabric-and an ugly little hunchback, a figure from German folklore representing the unremitting bad luck that shadowed Benjamin’s life. A giant pocket watch with a smashed-in face hangs over the set. The piece is deftly directed by Roberto Salomon and choreographed, in places, by Babs Case.

Benjamin’s intellectual and physical travels are expressed in a whimsical series of scenes set in various European cities. One of the mammoth volumes onstage is a pop-up book whose pages fold out to become sidewalk cafés in Paris, Naples, Moscow, Berlin. Benjamin’s journey begins as a humorous, lighthearted jaunt, including some girly ogling at the Folies Bergères. But it becomes an increasingly agitated flight from a pair of ravenous dogs that attack the lighthouse and whose fanged visages are emblazoned on Nazi banners.

In the end, we see the puppet Benjamin struggling up a mountainside of books tilted at a steep angle, fleeing the Nazis and his demons of rotten luck, till he’s backed against the precipice with no escape. This image bleeds into a film clip of mounds of wire-rimmed spectacles piled up at a concentration camp.

“One-Way Street” is the title of Benjamin’s 1928 collection of fragmentary writings. In Sandglass Theater’s dextrous hands, it’s also a signpost to the man’s life: a single-minded quest for knowledge and truth which defied the barbaric forces that ultimately destroyed him. As Walter Benjamin strove to expand the bounds of human understanding, “One-Way Street” inventively and insistently pushes back the borders of what we expect from puppet theater.

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