Muriel Maffre with Stravinsky at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater, December 13

22 Dec

Though close to its closing, A Soldier’s Tale (in French l’Histoire du Soldat) has enjoyed an ingenious staging by Muriel Maffre and the theater’s director Tom Ross. With the  Igor Stravinsky score rendered by the Ear Play Ensemble, an effective set designed by Benjamin Pierce, players,  L. Peter Callender, as the narrator/ Joseph’s voice, Joan Mankin in various guises as the devil with Maffre  manipulating the four-foot puppet Joseph, the sardonic play hits its morality mark handsomely in its 75 minute running time.   Donald Pippin was responsible for the first-rate translation.

By way of introduction, the Aurora Theatre is celebrating twenty years of theatrical presentation. It is situated on Addison, just off Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, next door to Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  The roster of plays produced reflects a remarkable array of classic and contemporary playwrights, all produced  in arena style.

The story goes that Joseph, a soldier on leave trudging “down the long and dusty road,” is persuaded to surrender his violin to the Devil in exchange for a red book that foresees the future.  So doing he also accepts a three-day sleep- over. It turns him into a ghost when he reaches his village. it has been three years and his fiancee has married and borne two children.

Maffre guided Joseph, placing her hands into his sleeve and glove when Joseph
gestured or brushed away a tear.  She clumped him down the central ramp, held his fiddle while the narrator handled the bow. Her handling was particularly poignant when he learns his fiancé has married, a still and lengthy pause. From my view the emotion registered from the back in shoulder and head.

Joseph rails against the devil, but takes advantage of the red book and prospers, extravagantly.  He is alone, and lonely; seeking to play his violin again with an exchange and return visit by the Devil, the instrument emits only ugly sounds.  Feeling betrayed, he destroys the red book, throws his wealth over, setting out “down the long and dusty road” once more.

At a tavern he learns of a sick princess who would become the bride of anyone
curing her.  Joseph plays cards with the Devil to gain first place , deliberately losing his cash, plying him with liquor sufficient to having his adversary pass out and retrieving his violin.  Of course the Devil is livid. While Joseph wins the princess’ hand with the aid of his violin, sweet sounding once more.  The Devil warns if he steps outside  the small kingdom, his princess wife will die and he is lost.

Joseph’s curative violin playing provides the opportunity to see Maffre dance once more. Rising from a recumbent position, she stretches, reaches and reasserts active use of her legs and arms. Bursting with joy, her arms revolve above her head, her legs devour the arena stage space, a strong but delicate interlude to the Devil’s dire prediction.

A quiet interlude follows where the princess asks Joseph about his early life.
She suggests they visit his village, and he acquiesces, saying he could visit
his mother.  Taking the fatal step, the Devil appears to seal Joseph’s fate while’the princess expires behind a veil.  Smoke shoots around the base of the platform, the ramp lifts and the Devil shoves Joseph into hell’s abyss.

Callender made a commanding figure as the Narrator and Joseph’s voice; Mankin’s devil was strident, arms and fingers flung wide, face painted on one
side, a witch of Shakespeare as much as Hades’ host.  Maffre’s handling of
Joseph was skillful and tender, demonstrating her ability to apply years of
discipline in new directions.

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