Review: In ‘Chambre Noire,’ Puppets Make Poetry Painfully Real
The warning to the audience outside “Chambre Noire,” a shadowy astonishment of a show from Plexus Polaire at the Under the Radar festival, is a remarkable mini catalog of things to come.
Recorded gunshots? De rigueur in a production about Valerie Solanas, the feminist agitator whose claim to fame, aside from writing the radical “S.C.U.M. Manifesto,” is that she shot Andy Warhol.
Adult content? Also to be expected. Sexual abuse, prostitution and mental illness all shaped Solanas’s tormented, truncated life.
Then there’s the heads-up about “implied nudity through the use of lifelike puppets.” Naked puppets do freak some people out, and the anatomy on display here is unusually detailed.
But if you haven’t experienced this French-Norwegian company before — and I have seen only one other of its works, the exquisite arson tale “Cendres,” in 2017 — you don’t yet know how viscerally haunting its puppetry can be. These ugly-beautiful full-size human stand-ins aren’t just lifelike; they can insinuate their way right to your core.
Young Valerie, a pigtailed little girl in a dress, is the first one who will get you. She clings to her mother, Dorothy, played by the extraordinary Yngvild Aspeli, who is the show’s sole actor, and puppeteer. As Dorothy tries to get out of the house, leaving Valerie in her father’s care, the child whispers in her ear.
“Don’t be silly,” her mother soothes. “He’s your daddy!”
For all the sordid tragedy that marked Solanas’s life, it seems to have started at the hands of her father, who she said sexually abused her. At the Public Theater, “Chambre Noire,” directed by Ms. Aspeli and Paola Rizza, depicts this in such devastatingly poetic imagery — a child dissociating from her body to endure a trauma — that it made me clap a hand to my mouth. It’s not the only staggering moment in this show.
But “Chambre Noire” spends most of its time with two adult versions of Valerie, both also puppets (designed by Ms. Aspeli, Pascale Blaison and Polina Borisova): one angry, outrageous and amusingly self-aware in late-1960s New York; the other skinny, grimy and pitiable in 1988 San Francisco, hallucinating alone in a cheap hotel room and nearing death at 52.
With powerful live percussion by the hardworking Ane Marthe Sorlien Holen, and duly dim lighting by Xavier Lescat, the show includes plentiful video (by David Lejard-Ruffet) projected on black-string curtains that sometimes obscure more than they should. This is nonetheless a stunning work of art — a deeply compassionate remembrance of a furious, unbalanced woman who took aim at a Great Man.
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Through Jan. 13 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes
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