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A tale of tails

The antics of Renault, the fox, tugged at the heartstrings of children



All a question of pulling the right strings

As dusk withdrew into the balmy November night, out came Renart the naughty fox, with Chanticleer, the cock, uncle fox and the lion king in tow. Renart and company called the shots as Jean-Luc Penso and his fellow puppeteers, Eric Minnaert and Fabrice Moussy, pulled the strings at the Vyloppilly Samskrithi Bhavan.

The French trio, under the banner of Theatre du Petit Miroir, was in Thiruvananthapuram recently as part of their visit to eight Indian cities. The programme was organised under the auspices of the Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum, the Embassy of France in India and the Delegation Alliance Francaise in India.

French all the way

The shadow puppet show, `Fox Story,' which the puppeteers presented, was French all the way - from the music to the puppets. However, the narration was in English with a bit of Malayalam thrown in. "We let the characters speak the local tongue wherever we go," says Penso. So when uncle fox cried: "Ente irachi kananilla" (I can't see my meat) and "Pakaram veettum njan" (I will take revenge), the audience was certainly amused.

The smooth transition from one scene to another, propped up by good lighting, provided the cutting edge.

The Fox Story narrates the tale of Renart and the impudence with which he goes about manipulating other animals. It is not long before the animals complain to the king, an old lion, about Renart's misdeeds. The show ends with Renart saving the life of the ailing king, but the clever fox continues to be his own master.

Social critique

"The story is a French adaptation. But as a social critique, the tale of Renart holds good in every society," says Penso, who has performed in 65 countries.

Ask him about the message he tries to put across to the audience, especially children, and Penso says: "My aim is entertainment. And in the course, if the audience can read some good meaning into it, that would be great."

Backstage fun

For the children, the real fun was going backstage to see the puppets. Penso, Eric and Fabrice interacted with the children as nimbly as they had handled the puppets. The performers also let the children pull a few strings and Renart was the most-sought-after character.

Penso mastered puppetry in Taipei from Li Tienlu, one of the last great puppeteers of the island.

He founded the Theatre du Petit Miroir in 1978. In 1985 he blended European tradition with the techniques of Chinese puppetry. "It was my master who encouraged me to adopt non-eastern contexts," says Penso.

The `Voyage of Ulysses' was the first production of this kind and was premiered at the Hydra Puppet Festival in Greece. "During my mandatory service in the French army, I used to perform for my colleagues and superiors. I was quite popular," he remembers proudly.

In 1990, he embarked upon a different type of show - the theatre of shadow puppets. "It was a Taiwanese master who taught this technique to the artistes. I got the entire paraphernalia from a Chinese master when the Cultural Revolution was at its peak in China. He was handing over a legacy to me.

"My first production of this type was `The Third Prince.' It has since been presented a number of times in France, including the Avignon Festival, at Reunion Island as well as in Spain, Singapore and Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Macao," Penso says.

In the company of Eric and Fabrice, Penso is still learning and perfecting the art of puppetry.

The trio left Thiruvananthapuram with a heavy heart. "We have not had enough of this beautiful land. We promise to come back," they say in unison.

K. SASIKUMAR

Photo: D. Gopalakrishnan

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