Views and Reviews

Views and Reviews: Jonathan Knott

Startling Expectations

When Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts hosted from Simpich Marionettes in Colorado a traveling one-man performance of the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations, I thought at first, “How in the world can one man translate that lengthy Victorian novel into a show that won’t put the audience to sleep?” I went in with NO expectations (forgive the pun) and came away astonished. It was literally one of the finest live performances of any kind that I’ve ever seen.

David Simpich, the genius behind the show, brought his own self-contained stage-within-a-stage that featured its own sound and lighting and a hand carved set that was amazingly compact and functional without losing any of its period charm. The marionettes (also hand carved) were stunning works of art as well, but it was the man himself who was truly awe-inspiring. He was visible in the background much of the time and often in the foreground as well, as was necessary when more than two characters were on stage at the same time. However, he was so completely at one with the puppets and the set and story that while I could see him, he never once became intrusive; he was instead pleasingly essential.

His mastery of movements was such that I never felt for a moment that I wasn’t watching the characters—Pip, the simple and sweet Joe Gargery, Mrs. Joe, the seemingly brittle but steely Miss Havisham, a heartbreaking Estella, Jaggers the lawyer, and the wonderfully realized Magwitch—come to life in Victorian London. Much of the illusion of actual life (and truly the most remarkable part of the performance) came from the puppeteer’s voice: his ability to sound like the perfect British narrator while seamlessly switching character voices from male to female, young to old, provincial to cockney, simple to intellectual, in the midst of conversations without pause. If he had been off to the side reading from a script while someone else was working the show, I still would have thought it must be several talented people reading instead of one. Factor in making his own sound effects, mainly vocal, like the howling of wind and footsteps, while also manipulating the marionettes, changing set pieces and reaching around set pieces to do his own lighting without ever fumbling, and you have the impression of an immensely talented man who must’ve dedicated years of his time to perfecting this one masterpiece.

The audience seemed to agree with me; during the entire performance, audience focus and hushed amazement were palpable, and when he gave a simple bow behind the stage to signal the end, they erupted into a well deserved standing ovation.

My piqued curiosity compelled me finally to research the performer, and I found some interesting facts. I discovered to my amazement that Simpich isn’t British. His parents made their living by hand carving dolls in Colorado and left him their shop and museum. His interest in the potential of marionettes led him to begin carving his own and eventually to open a theater adjoining the museum. I was surprised also to find that this was not his only play. He has written 16 original plays and adaptations and now has over 200 hand carved marionettes. He performs many of them in repertory year-round at his theater as well as on travelling tours. Colorado is a lucky state! I urge readers to check out Simpich Marionettes in Colorado Springs; this man deserves attention and appreciation.

The quality of theater productions in general has been rising steadily in Atlanta over the 25 years that I’ve been an avid patron. Early on, I often felt as if purchasing tickets was a bit of a coin flip because what you might see in any given evening out just might inspire a discreet exit at intermission. However, as the city continues to refine its cultural identity, more than a few of its theaters have become reliable in offering well chosen pieces that are also high in production quality. The Center for Puppetry Arts is at the top of my list, and I encourage the Center to bring back David Simpich. His is indeed a singular talent.

Copyright 2014, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.