Aurora Theatre adapts classic work to contemporary politics

soldiers
David Allen /Courtesy

Greed and corruption are currently at the center of American discontent. With occupations from Wall Street to UC Berkeley, our attitude towards wealth has become the forefront of daily political conversation. The Aurora Theatre’s latest play, “The Soldier’s Tale,” based on Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 musical work, continues this dialogue by asking the age-old question: Is it all about the Benjamins?

The story follows a traditional Faustian tale of a battle-weary soldier selling his soul, or in this case his out-of-tune fiddle, to gain hold of a magical tome that can predict the stock market (the very same transaction made by modern-day investment bankers).  Aside of the English translation in a catchy rhyming couplet scheme, the basics of the story haven’t changed since the play’s first rendition in the early 20th century.

But with a classic story, we’re brought a new face to play a soldier in the form of a four-foot tall puppet strung along by Mariel Maffre. It took both Mariel’s balletic movements of our soldier and a narration fit for a king’s speech by L. Peter Callender to give life to our papier-mache protagonist. Weak-willed and war-worn, our soldier seemed helpless as the devil pulled his strings to do his bidding, with our hero only cutting-loose to fight when his future wife’s life was at stake.

But where the story is more easily told through sketches of a life, we lose the vitality that comes with onstage human interaction, as we never see interplay between two live actors.  Though rehashed plays need new vehicles to thrive as a unique piece of art, one that removes the humanity at the core of artistic relatability reduces our theater experience to a retelling of a tale already told.

This isn’t to detract from the performance of Mariel Maffre, whose graceful hands make for a puppet soldier whose moral ambiguity is seen in the clumsiness of his every indecisive step. Joan Mankin undergoes a spine-tingling transformation  as a devil of many faces that would lead our soldier from off his beaten path. Callender played a commanding narrator, whose words resonated off the theatre walls with an intensity that made us see the life in our hero’s frozen stare. But, as even the world renowned fictional scientist  Dr. Frankenstein learned, reanimation is no easy task.

The architecture of modern playhouses, from the Aurora to UC Berkeley’s own playhouse, seem to be moving towards a dethroning of the stage by placing at floor level, while with seating that has audience members facing each other from either side of the stage.   This arrangement removed visual focus from the spectacle of the play and creates a theatre role for all members of the audience, where their emotional response to Callender’s monologues or Maffre’s tender balet solo were just as important as the performance itself.

Theater companies are constantly reworking classic plays with a proven formulaic narrative that spells success. In this, each rendition fights and struggles to find it’s way to a top of a pile of cliche pieces and reach the status of relevancy. This is where the “contemporary” theater comes in with off the wall theatrics that have audiences leaving exhilarated or bewildered—taking the risk that every worthwhile piece of art should. Here, “The Soldier’s Tale” plays it safe, unwilling to lead the heroic charge it needs to take it’s story out of the trenches of past-renditions.