Among the many treasures of world theatre, the tradition of shadow puppets is one of the most fascinating. From Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean, the deceptively simple spectacle of flat figures projected onto a translucent screen has captivated children of all ages for centuries.
In Turkey, the shadow puppet theatre has given the world a certain misfit named Karagöz (“Black eyen” also known through his Greek cousin, Karagiozi). Together with his sidekick, Hacivat (pronounced hah-chee-vaht, and by far the more educated of the two), Karagöz gets into a mess of trouble with his get-rich-quick schemes but manages to survive every time. Famously bald, and with a talent for slapstick, Karagöz’s many stunts seem to anticipate the antics of the Three Stooges and their progeny.
(Note: any resemblance between Homer Simpson and this guy is far from coincidental. They’re much alike, with the possible exception of that nuclear power plant bit—although I’m sure Karagöz could gladly make a hash of that gig too.)
The artist Ayhan Hulagu, who already has a career as a film and stage actor, has trained in the techniques of producing and performing with his own ‘company’ of shadow puppets. Made from translucent buffalo and camel hides, his colorful figures are backed by a variety of lights; the freedom with which these puppets can move through space is a reminder that mankind has always loved a good cartoon—cinema or no cinema. Working with scenarios adapted by Huseyin Sorgun, the Washington-Baltimore area can now get better acquainted with this famous theatrical form.
Hulagu’s kit is compact—he’s a one-man theatre…
This past weekend, Baltimore’s Theatre Project hosted Hulagu and his merry band for two shows—one, “The Forest of the Witch,” based on a traditional Karagöz script, and the other, “Dream of Hamlet,” an experimental piece offering Shakespeare’s classic in an entirely new way.
Hulagu’s skill at creating voices and manipulating his cast of characters is matched by his improvisation skills: Karagöz & Co. always engage the audience in asides and conversation, which is especially fun for younger members of the audience (and those who still think of themselves as young!). Performing in English, he offers audiences a glimpse of comic themes that may be traditional in Turkey, but are as universal as you can possibly imagine.
In “The Forest of the Witch,” Karagoz—out of boredom, perhaps—destroys a magical tree; in revenge, the tree’s spirit transforms him into a series of animals, which leads to a comic sequence of adventures, with Hacivat trying to help. With “Dream of Hamlet,” Hulagu gives us a new conceit: Karagöz, broke as always, decides to try his hand at acting, and of course, this means he gets to play the Melancholy Dane. The sequence from Act 1 of this classic is played out faithfully; in a twist that Shakespeare aficionados can appreciate all the female roles—Ophelia, Gertrude—are played by Hacivat, beard and all. It’s up to Karagöz to tire of this classic theatre stuff, but when he does Hulagu creates a wordless puppet ballet that evokes the themes and emotions of the story.
Hulagu’s kit is compact—he’s a one-man theatre, and as he develops his repertoire I hope we will have many more opportunities to see his hard-luck friend get into all sorts of trouble.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
“The Forest of the Witch” and “Dream of Hamlet” were produced by Karagöz Theatre Company and was performed for one day only. For more information about the company, and Ayhan Hulagu’s work, visit online.