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Stages

Puppets in Shakespeare’s fairyland? Imagine that.

From left: Fionn Gill, Colin Michael Carmichael, Miltos Yerolemou, David Emmings, Jon Trenchard, and Saikat Ahamed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Simon Annand

From left: Fionn Gill, Colin Michael Carmichael, Miltos Yerolemou, David Emmings, Jon Trenchard, and Saikat Ahamed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sets love and imagination to play in a wooded fairyland under moonlight and features a group of wannabe actors known as “the mechanicals.” So adding puppets among the actors isn’t really a stretch, director Tom Morris says.

“One needs to be careful not to be too philosophical about these things, because the play’s a comedy, but in some ways it’s a profound comedy,” says Morris. He’s artistic director of England’s Bristol Old Vic theater, which created the show with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. ArtsEmerson brings it to Cutler Majestic Theatre March 6-15.

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“The play depicts events in which supernatural forces meddle with the lives of humans, and it uses that meddling as a kind of metaphor for the inexplicable changes that happen when we’re in love,” Morris says, speaking from London. “A puppeteer is holding a series of inanimate objects and moving them in a way that invites the audience to create life where there is none.” Either way, it’s a kind of magic.

Bringing a puppet to life is not far from the animist beliefs that still had some credence in Shakespeare’s day, he says, and also conjures “the feeling you get when you’re scared at night and you can’t tell if it’s a shadow or a ghost in the doorway.”

Of course, Morris has another reason to go puppet. The Old Vic’s previous collaboration with Handspring was the wildly successful “War Horse,” featuring lifesize horse puppets in an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 World War I novel.

“In the book, the horse narrates the story. Pretty much the first decision I made in response to the book was, if we were going to tell this story on the stage, we weren’t going to have a talking horse,” Morris says, chuckling.

The play was a hit in the West End and on Broadway, won the Tony Award for best play in 2011, and inspired the Steven Spielberg film.

Morris wanted to work with Handspring’s Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones again, but so big was “War Horse” that they agreed it would be “mad” to do anything similar or that even might draw comparisons. The South Africans mentioned that they had done a puppet-centric “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1980s, and a long development process began.

As complicated a production as “War Horse” was, Morris says, the central challenge can be directly stated: “It’s getting the audience to believe this is a real horse and care about it.” “Midsummer Night’s Dream” isn’t so simply described, he says, but it is about bringing the audience into a world where “every object has the right to life.”

“The feeling is, the room where the story begins — which is the place where Hippolyta is carving these images in the hopes the spirits will bless her wedding to Theseus — that this room is kinda possessed by these spirits and the very planks in walls are torn out by their joints and come alive,” Morris says.

Many in the cast of 12 play more than one character and must also operate a puppet, like the giant head and hand that represent Oberon, king of the Fairies, or the special three-man puppet of Puck, Oberon’s servant, built from tools and other objects on the set. Saikat Ahamed plays Snug and is also a member of “Team Puck” with Lucy Tuck and Fionn Gill.

Simon Annand

David Ricardo Pearce with Oberon’s head and hand.

“There are clearly special challenges, but there are also special opportunities as performers,” Ahamed says from a tour stop in Hong Kong. “The thing that’s really exciting is that the level of puppetry is really detailed. At any given time I’ve got maybe the torso and one arm. I might have an instinct to do something, but unless I’m completely in tune with the other people doing Puck, that won’t read to the audience. We’ve got to all have the same thought at the same time, or at least it’s got to seem that way to the audience.

“It’s really exciting getting into a place as a performer where you get so in tune with the other people onstage that actually we’re breathing in synch, we’re thinking in synch, we’re trying to do all of that together,” Ahamed says.

The production premiered at Bristol Old Vic last February and was enough of a success that it’s now on a world tour zigzagging from Hong Kong to Boston, then on to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Seoul.

“It’s very clear that on the stage you can’t have a picture as detailed as you can make in a movie or even on the telly,” Morris says. “You can’t integrate the soundtrack with the picture to that minute, microsecond precision which you can in a movie. Therefore, as a theater-maker, the exciting thing for me is to say to an audience, ‘What’s different about this is it’s an imaginative game you the audience are playing when you go to the theater.’ Theater audiences are creative in a way they don’t have to be if they go to movies. The audience, when it comes to puppetry, they are literally imagining life.”

The best in local theater

With the Oscars almost out of the way, we can get on to the important stuff: Boston theater awards.

The 32d Elliot Norton Awards ceremony will be held May 19 at the Wheelock Family Theatre. The awards are presented annually by The Boston Theater Critics Association to honor outstanding productions, plays, and performances on stages around the Boston area. Nominees and the recipient of the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence will be announced in mid-April. Tickets, $30, are available at 617-879-2300 or through
nortonawardsboston.com. (Hint for starving actors:
$10 discount promo code “norton2014” is good through April 30.)

Meanwhile, the 18th annual IRNE Awards will be held April 7 at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. The event is held by Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE), a group of print and online theater critics. Nominees are already online at the group’s Facebook page. At the event, the group will also present the first Bob Jolly Award, a $2,000 cash award to an up-and-coming musical comedy performer, sponsored by the estate of the late actor, who died last year. Admission is free to the public, no tickets required.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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