Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Horses ride people, ninjas fight audience members and old teddy bears get an unexpected new lease of life as Jeff Achtem makes surreal shadow puppets from household junk before your eyes. Verbal communication takes a back seat as everything he can get his hands – and feet – on is used to create joyfully detailed scenes, though there’s plenty of referential humour and theatrical craft along the way.
With the school summer holidays in full swing, Radio 4’s Today Programme recently hosted a debate on the subject of boredom. Is boredom on its way to extinction in the digital age, and if so should we be mourning it? Could we all benefit from a little more time with no DVD to watch, iPod to listen to or Facebook friend to poke?
This gorgeous one-man family show from Montreal demonstrates what wonders can ensue when you have excess time on your hands – and your feet. Jeff Achtem is a shadow puppeteer whose shapes are as exacting as his manner is casual. But where traditional, Eastern shadow puppetry is about exquisite paper models and clean lines, Achtem uses bits of domestic junk that he adapts in front of you on stage. Surveying his prop ‘cupboard’ – a washing line strung with rather sorry looking gloves and chopped up sleeves, and a floor dotted with a discarded teddy or the head of a mop, you’d never imagine what beautiful and believable, if always cartoonishly surreal scenes he could create with them.
So there are plenty of ‘ah!’ moments as, say, the rump of an upturned teddy bear that’s had its ears unceremoniously masking-taped back becomes, via the simple alchemy of lamp and screen, the head of a man undergoing a brain transplant (we did say surreal – we should say occasionally dark too, though that didn’t seem to bother the appreciatively gurgling toddler in the audience).
What makes this a beautifully crafted show instead of a series of shadow stunts is partly the pacing of these moments of realization, so that we have just forgotten about the shoe he takes from an audience member and adapts in the opening moments by the time it makes its screen debut. (Achtem rarely talks – he’s a sort of shy, tweed-clad Morph – but at such moments he does allow himself a muted little ‘yeaaaah!’ of mutual enjoyment.)
He’s got some sweet little jokes, too, about both the liberations and limitations of the form. ‘Black and…. Black’ he indicates of the pieces as two shadow spouses settle down to play shadow chess. ‘I’m not that good!’ Meanwhile an audience member is defeated in combat by a shadow ninja who has the advantage of being able to raise four limbs from the ground and walk up walls.
The coup de theatre involves him simultaneously using both hands and both feet in a ludicrously awkward feat of turning puppeteer contortionism. But just as memorable is his closing message: ‘remember, no matter how busy you are, there’s always time to play’. Finally, to show he’s serious about sharing, he sends light shapes dancing out from the screen and across the walls towards us. It’s hard to imagine a more entertaining, generous or inspirational family show. Pray for a little more boredom in your life and prepare to play.