ugg camel Moisés Kaufman Directs ‘Puss in Boots’ Opera
Moisés Kaufman has wrestled with the trials of Oscar Wilde and the murder of Matthew Shepard. He’s grappled with Beethoven and Jane Fonda, both in the same play (“33 Variations”).
Now this 46 year old playwright and director is playing with puppets: fish, fowl, an ogre, rabbits, a cat. And they’re singing. Is this the same theater auteur who brought the world “Gross Indecency” (the Wilde play) and the Shepard inspired “Laramie Project”?
“This awakens the child in me,” Mr. Kaufman said recently, holding aloft a foam rubber eel puppet during a break from rehearsal for “Puss in Boots (El Gato Con Botas),” a 1947 opera by the Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge. If Mr. Kaufman’s inner child is behind the endeavor, he’s an ambitious tyke, as Montsalvatge’s one act opera does not typically include a cast of puppeteers alongside the singers. The production, which opens on Saturday at the New Victory Theater, is by Mr. Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, Gotham Chamber Opera and the puppetmakers of Blind Summit Theater (a London company last represented in New York by the puppet child in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Madama Butterfly”).
A taste for the fanciful is actually not so new for Mr. Kaufman. Last year he lavishly reimagined the fairy tale collisions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at Kansas City Repertory. And while the three years he spent immersed in Beethoven’s music to write and direct “33 Variations” were hardly a lark, the experience whetted his appetite “to be with music in the room, and to keep exploring the narrative power of music.”
“I knew the composer’s work, and the story is something I grew up hearing in Venezuela,” said Mr. Kaufman, who moved to the United States in 1987. “And the music has a very Spanish flair to it it’s whimsical, and yet it’s rough and a little caustic at times. It’s a lot about eating and drinking and enjoying the pleasures of the table. So that felt like a summer vacation for me.”
Deep in rehearsals, “Puss in Boots” didn’t look like a vacation for anyone involved. Singers and puppeteers dodged one another on a crowded, whirling stage. At one point Mr. Kaufman got up to act out a crucial pounce for the puppeteer and for Mark Down,
the puppet director. “The more violent the cat can be with the mouse, the better,” Mr. Kaufman said, clawing at the air.
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On a break, he explained, “When I started working with puppets, some of my actor friends joked, ‘Oh, now you can just get your actors to do what you want.’ But actually, with the cat you have three puppeteers and a singer. So the problem is multiplied by four. You have to direct every gesture, every look, every emotion.”
In short, he said, “It’s a lot of hard work to do whimsy.”
With Tectonic, Mr. Kaufman creates primarily by staging and developing work as it’s being written. Kaufman likes to throw a wrench into the rehearsal. While directing Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” last year in Los Angeles, Mr. Kaufman concocted a game in which one actor spoke Mr. Joseph’s lines as written, while he stood just behind another actor and quietly fed him ad libs.
“It was an exercise to help me crack open the scene, and it did open up the possibilities it was almost like watching a puppet show,” Mr. Joseph recalled. “Moisés always looks at storytelling and theatricality as things to be played with. He wants to bewitch an audience.”
He will have his chance with “Puss in Boots,” in which a poor man’s cat wins his master a castle and a princess by spinning elaborate fictions he then cleverly renders true.
“The fable is a fascinating form because it’s a story that wears its metaphor on its sleeve,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Joseph Campbell says that fables talk to us about our core desires, and ‘Puss in Boots’ speaks to our desires to imagine a better world. This mangy cat revolutionizes his whole world with his imagination.”