It begins in darkness with an ominous low drone and slow, goose bump inducing breathing. A dim light appears, then a shadow which becomes The Knave of Hearts, a skeletal, prowling creature that harbours gloom. It is the start of a haunting, andante piece about loss, love and friendship.
There are three other puppets in Apples and Ladders, by Melbourne based company Lemony S. Through the skillful hands and minds of Jacob Williams and Sarah Kriegler we meet two elderly men who are next door neighbours. One, an old drag queen is alone and lonely, taking to the drink as he laments his long gone past. The other is happily married and delights in taking apples from his tree to his bedridden wife.
It is a sensitive piece, one told by character movements and the superb music of English band The Tiger Lilies. Their music is eccentric gothic folk, with haunting tales of heartbreak and loneliness. Although many of the shows songs are from The Tiger Lilies albums, additional music was created exclusively for the show. Additional sound was created by Jethro Woodward.
The idea of the performance and story began in London. Williams picked up a free paper on the tube and read the following story: Once upon a time there was a lonely old man. He was so poor that he often went hungry. He lay awake with his belly hurting, wondering where his next meal would come from. All he owned was a tall, old painter’s ladder that was no use to him. Next door lived another lonely old man who was also very poor. All he owned was a tall apple tree, whose branches stretched far out of his reach. Unfortunately they never met.*
From this came Apples and Ladders. I found it to be an emotive piece, if a little too slow moving. Williams and Kriegler operated all puppets, as well as using delicate shadow puppetry - artfully hidden in the front of the sets. The two puppeteers created beautiful moments for the characters, but I thought they lacked that total finesse and bond needed to operate one puppet with two people. I also found it distracting that they appeared in normal clothes - Kriegler in particular was wearing a beaded necklace that kept distracting me.
The set originally designed by Mischa Long, is a story in itself. Four boxes held the small, intricate sets - one house, the tree, another house, the sidewalk. The boxes lit up underneath for the shadow scenes. Each box was kept separate from one another, creating a sense of dislocation and disassociation. The set pieces themselves were detailed, perhaps made out of foam / paper maché and covered in brown paper. Only the apples on the apple tree and a lone flower stood out with colour.
The lighting by Richard Vabre was somber and added to the separation of characters and events. Often the stage faded to black for a few moments before the next state came up. Whilst it added to the ominous, sad feeling, I thought it could have been a little bit snappier and still kept the atmosphere. The use of low floodlights, creating shadows on the back of the set of both the puppets and the puppeteers, was an interesting touch.
Overall, although I found it a little slow, I was still moved by the gothic piece and enjoyed the poetic telling. Apples and Ladders is an enduring show with a heartwarming ending.
*sourced from the Apples and Ladders program.
Apples and Ladders
Venue: The Blue Room
Dates/Times: Mon 7 @ 6:00pm & 8:30pm; Tue 8 @ 2:00pm, 6:00pm & 8:30pm; Wed 9 @ 2:00pm, 4:00pm & 6:00pm
Duration: 50 minutes
Bookings: www.unima2008.com | Tickets available on the door, unless sold out prior to the event