- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2000

WHAT: "The Battle of Stalingrad: A Requiem" presented by Rezo Gabriadze's Tblisi (Georgia) Marionette Theater

WHERE: American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center

WHEN: Today, Thursday and Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; tomorrow and Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

PRICES: $25

PHONE: 202/467-4600

First off, be warned. The Tblisi Marionette Theater's production of "The Battle of Stalingrad" is not for children.

These are puppets and marionettes in name only. What they represent on the small dark stage in Kennedy Center's American Film Institute Theater foreshortened for the occasion is a searing and riveting examination of the physical and emotional devastation of war.

A program note says "not recommended for young people under 12," but even 12 and 13 year olds might be better staying home and reading history instead. And adults lacking an Eastern European mind-set are advised to read beforehand about the battle between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1942-43 that was considered a turning point in World War II.

The poetic transformation wrought by the company of puppeteers under the direction of Georgian native Rezo Gabriadze listed as director, director of decoration and puppet sculptor as well as music director is, frankly, more easily experienced than explained.

Visual and musical effects are so subtly integrated in the 75-minute show, rightly subtitled "Requiem," that a viewer can best appreciate them almost subconsciously. Scenes take place in Berlin, Moscow and Kiev as well as Stalingrad; the time frame is 1937 to 1943. Characters include soldiers, artists, an ant and an angel as well as a German marshal and Stalin.

At the very least, audience members should take time to read carefully the director's program note and study the list of scene titles. What follows may then seem less happenstance. There is almost no logical progression or conventional story. This is a form of drama designed to tug at the heartstrings, an exhaustively somber and relentlessly fatalistic study of man's inhumanity to man.

Any comic effects are quickly buried by the surreal and absurd. The only relief an audience feels is stepping back to observe in a curious vein the clever artistry and technical manipulations involved. A repetitive line of small tin shapes pushed horizontally in succession by the visible puppeteers to the sound of thundering music conveys a line of tanks or soldiers marching to their doom and destruction. The turning of a spiral form, like a horizontal eggbeater, portrays a swimmer in the waves.

The production, billed as a North American premiere, contains a few other imaginative devices suggestive of Alexander Calder's circus, now in residence (with a video) at New York's Whitney Museum of Modern Art.

America's Calder, of course, was pure fun and whimsy a homage to the playful child in all of us whereas here we are led by a multitude of voices to feel viscerally man's tragic nature as well as his soulful and spiritual side. One of the most moving scenes is a wedding when a jilted soldier, seeing his beloved marry another man, reacts by shooting wildly into the crowd and is then shot himself.

So many elements are at work simultaneously: puppeteers who clearly (and not always advantageously) are visible; their puppets; dramatic lighting; narrative; music; and subtitles, a translation of the Russian script in faint green letters just below the stage. At times, it can be a confusing rather than an inspiring experience. But the ingenuity is impressive, a unique cultural tradition marvelous to behold.

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