|ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage and the Celebrity Series of Boston is presenting Basil Twist’s “Petrushka” at Paramount Theatre through Nov. 21. (Photos courtesy of the Celebrity Series of Boston)
In the 1911 Ballets Russes production of “Petrushka,” dancers play a trio of puppets locked in a tragic love triangle.
Inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s score, renowned puppeteer Basil Twist conceived, designed and directed his own “Petrushka” and cast his handmade puppets in the roles of the hapless clown Petrushka, the alluring Ballerina and the dashing Moor.
A captivating hour of theatrical magic, Basil Twist’s “Petrushka” had its debut in May 2001 at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Twist recently revived the critically acclaimed work, which ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage and the Celebrity Series of Boston are presenting at the Paramount Theatre through Nov. 21.
The intimate theater is an ideal setting for Twist’s blend of visual and musical alchemy.
Two grand pianos are on stage in front of the 10-foot puppet theater built by Twist — a gold picture frame with a blue curtain that evokes the original Ballets Russes set.
The Russian pianists Irina and Julia Elkina, twin sisters whom Twist regards as “co-creators” of the production, perform the music that inspired his “Petrushka.”
Behind the puppet theater are Twist’s unseen collaborators, nine black-garbed puppeteers who bring his figures to life, aided by the magical lighting of Andrew Hill.
The program begins with a prelude. As the sisters perform Stravinsky’s “Sonata for Two Pianos” and “Theme with Variations,” an abstract fantasia fills the gold frame of the puppet theater.
Diaphanous curtains shimmy as they rise to show kaleidoscopic images that turn the puppet stage into an animated painting. Simple paper cutouts jiggle and spin to Stravinsky’s music, which blends echoes of Russian folk tunes with jagged modernist chords. The tops of fairy-tale Russian towers whirl in an upside down, whimsical world that evokes a painting by Chagall. An ensemble of folk instruments — a guitar, zither, accordion and tambourine — come alive as they dance to the melody.
Shapes recede and dissolve into a black background, drawing the viewer’s eye into the darkness. At one point, the paper cutouts converge into a hypnotic, gyrating pinwheel as disembodied hands dance as if playing a keyboard — Twist’s nod to the spellbinding power of puppetry, dance and music.
After a brief pause, the trio of puppets takes the stage and the Elkina sisters begin their two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s 1947 four-hand version of “Petrushka.”
The glamorous Ballerina flirts with the smitten Petrushka. Outfitted in a white tunic and checkerboard-patterned pants, the clown flaps his long arms and leaps with excitement.
The scene shifts to the quarters of the Moor, who is all muscle and male allure in a vest, silken pantaloons and a red beret. After slicing a coconut from a palm tree, he reclines on his divan. The Ballerina enters and lures him into a sultry duet. Petrushka breaks in and pulls them apart.
In between scenes, a bear with a cavernous red mouth and snapping jaws appears, suggesting the menace ahead.
The vengeful Moor pursues Petrushka, who withers like a leaf as he is felled by his rival’s saber.
In a poignant aftermath, the figure of Petrushka appears off stage and waves farewell, leaving the audience to wonder how a bundle of cloth and wood can stir such sorrow.