Why Rip Oneself in Half in Search of Perfection?

22 04 2022

Half boy, foto: arhiv Dafa Puppet Theatre

Author: Tjaša Breznik

Husam Abed is a puppeteer whose notion of theatre is articulated as a way to effect change in the perception of personal and collective histories. Being imperfect, people strive for improvement. And theatre is something that prompts us, directly or indirectly, to bring about change. Husam Abed’s puppet show was part of Couch Festival 2022 in Slovenia, an event that takes music and theatre out of the concert halls and theatre venues and into people’s homes. This turns someone’s private space into a public one while keeping it intimate since each performance can only accommodate a small group of people (as many as can fit in a living room). As an event rethinking the essence of potential spaces for art, the Couch Festival is just the platform to invite alternative notions of theatre.

A member of the Prague-based Dafa Puppet Theatre, Abed has based his show upon a Palestinian Arabic story entitled Half Boy. This story provides a framework for free play, in which the puppeteer expands the logic of puppet manipulation by merging elements of object theatre, physical theatre, and musical and dance theatre. The aesthetically perfected glove puppets Abed uses to take on the role of delivering the occasional dialogue while enacting the plot. The puppeteer, as the narrator, keeps freezing the story to illuminate key events and re-entering the playful dance around the stage, always singing the same song. Soon enough, the audience joins in. Preceded by the sound of a drum used by the puppeteer and the sound of a guitar from the back of the room, this short musical intervention serves as a transition between two important events. The musical part can be understood as a “push” deeper into the story, each singing act bringing the audience one step closer to the end of the tale. At the same time, it may ease the atmosphere created by the tragic or terrifying events in the plot, the shock fading away blithely with music.

The story goes that a king has two sons. The elder son is born without deficiency: with two eyes, ears and arms. The younger son, however, arrives in this world lacking: with only one eye, one ear and one shoulder. And yet it is this half boy who goes out into the world, helping the creatures he meets along the way, gradually growing up, and it is he who ultimately saves his father and (now spiritually and personally mature) forgives him for his spiteful past deeds. Meanwhile, the perfect boy fails to grow up, as symbolised by a small puppet that remains on the set without replacement. This mirrors the power of individuals to take their “natural” fate into their own hands and change its course, using their abilities to reach beyond their supposedly predestined role by reinventing themselves.

The substance is supported by a matching approach to staging: when discussing “perfect imperfections”, the performance technique plays with half states and with the beauty of “mistakes”, such as deviations from the script, subdued singing, and the search for the puppets supposed to be on the set. Abed makes these deliberate mistakes part of the concept, a creative premise and a driver in developing the show. 

Abed’s idea of “perfect imperfections” links to the purpose of transcending boundaries and highlighting one’s “blunders” – which, in fact, do not blunder at all if they are conceptually justified and foreseen. It should be noted that the "mistakes" can never be attributed to the puppets, for the puppets rise above the world of flaws, somehow transcending the puppeteer's imperfection. A puppet is self-sufficient and, in this sense, perfect. That said, its engagement with the operator may create friction if the puppeteer fails to use the full range it has to offer. Such insecurity in the relationship between them can lead to weak performance, a misunderstanding, or a flaw.

This is precisely what Abed makes you wonder: when the puppeteer makes a mistake, do they really? Abed emphasises mistakes and takes their side, revealing them rather than feigning perfection since any such attempt will invariably be subject to the audience’s critical comments. As a result, the puppet manipulation seems spontaneous, improvised, as if the show was being formed right before our eyes, like an “improved” piece of ancestors’ oral tradition, like a message delivered long ago that has now been returned, updated and upgraded. The “deficiencies” – not truly lacking – imbue what is fundamentally a weighty story with a humorous, easy atmosphere that speaks to children and adults alike. The narrative may be interpreted on multiple levels, all of them leading to the conclusion that the only flaw is, in fact, inaction – and making a mistake means doing nothing. Wouldn’t the only genuine mistake be to set the puppets aside and wait for perfection, which may never come?

During the show, the puppeteer dares to cross the edge of the cramped little orange-coloured stage envisaged, like the story, as a framework, a space he can keep returning to and a place to store the puppets and props that are not currently in use. Is this little stage, looking so cramped (parochial, even), truly the essential elements of the show? When the action takes place on or behind it, it sparks the desire for the puppeteer to step off it, but when left aside, even as a forgotten and redundant prop, it steals the limelight from the narrative delivered by the puppets. In both instances, the stage appears as a critical and eternal reminder of the boundary being crossed. On the one hand, it suggests that the little stage has been set up to conform to some theatrical convention, for the puppets to have a home where they can be themselves and retreat when inactive. On the other hand, with his innovative act of exiting it, his drumming and singing, and his transitions between the scenes, the performer takes himself out of the normative framework of a puppet play, revealing himself clearly as the puppet operator, making himself part the show and placing himself in the interval between the on-stage action and the audience. Suddenly, the puppeteer’s larger body is in the foreground, as the incursion of reality into the otherwise imaginative story world. 

The concept of “perfect imperfections” could function as an excuse for unskilled execution, a conceptual ambition to camouflage technical flaws. Some of the show’s planned faux pas are quite endearing and relieve the atmosphere of keeping the audience at a strict distance by creating a cosy narrative mood. Others, however, are more indefinite and obscured, such as the carefree approach to visibility, the little orange stage being the only thing that is illuminated at all times. When the action moves elsewhere, the lights continue to illuminate the empty, deserted space while the puppeteer and his puppet remain in the dark, barely visible and not entirely perceptible. 

Half Boy presents the world of personal deficiencies from the point of view of bodily (non-)endowment, depicting deviations explicitly and in ways that animation for children often shuns. By exaggerating the puppets’ deformities, it makes them seem lovely, thereby sending a message to young spectators that not everyone is born the same; we all have weaknesses, but throughout our lives, we can overcome them. Although the show simplifies the narrative, it manages, in the limited time available, to spotlight our obsession with perfection and the obstacles that we tend to place in the way ourselves, for ourselves. Meanwhile, it uncritically overlooks the neoliberal spirit of the time, one that unmistakably puts the responsibility for creating our own selves and lives on us, saying that anything is possible in this world, that there are no obstacles, only challenges and inspirations. This responsibility can often feel like a burden placed on us by society.

Why would one rip oneself in half in search of perfection? With this, the show raises an important issue, calling attention to a primary desire shared by the heterogeneous, temporary community gathered around a performance: to simply enjoy it.

In line with Abed’s idea of re-awaking one’s own and collective stories, Half Boy inspires an intimate meditation on growing up, embracing one’s flaws and overcoming them. The puppeteer portrays our lives, especially our ways of procrastinating, as well as the role of the artist as an individual presumably aiming at perfection. Who knows how many perfect productions are being developed behind closed doors, out of sight, waiting for the right moment that may (possibly) never arrive. Ultimately, the part about the perfect boy, who remains a perfect child, never growing up, is left unambiguously ambiguous, encouraging further subtle reflection.  

Performer: Husam Abed; directors: Branislav Mazuch, Husam Abed; creative directors, stage design, puppets and props: Radka Mizerova & Robert Smolik; dramaturge: Branislav Mazuch; music: Husam Abed with friends