The Chuvash State Puppet Theater’s Flop-Eared Ilyuk opened the 2011 Nauruz Festival on May 30. The 40-minute marionette, performed solo by Yurii Filippov, the tale of a young elephant’s adventures as he makes the long journey from his home and loving parents in India to the far-off land of Chuvashia, where he has promised to meet his dear friend, the Chuvash beauty Hevedus. The play is unassuming, quietly affirming the beauty and value of one’s native land and language. Russia has a long and underappreciated tradition of puppet theater, and Fillipov ably continues that tradition.
Thirty-three plays and four days later, and the quiet satisfaction and joy of the Chuvash play is hard to even compare with the brash grandeur and effects of the festival’s finale — the City Theater of Ankara’s musical production of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Turkish company’s interpretation of the first book of C. S. Lewis’s beloved series. The musical is written for viewers of all ages, in the words of actor Sabri Özmener (Mr. Beaver), for everyone from 7 to 70 years of age.
While the company acknowledges that the recent feature film has raised the profile of Narnia in Turkey and around the world, they argue that the musical presents a novel interpretation of the land and its stories– distinct from both the film and the books themselves.
Narnia is directed by one of Turkey’s most accomplished names, Işıl Kasapoğlu, who has worked on everything from Greek tragedy to the Turkish satirical comedy Hoca Nasreddin, to Nikolai Gogol’s Government Inspector. The project attracted the stars of Ankara’s and all of Turkey’s theatrical world, and its ornate and richly fantastic set was brought here in its entirety, taking up two tractor-trailers. Indeed, the large set spilled off Kamal Theater’s large stage, with vines and foliage rising onto the mezzanine and balconies above, making for the most elaborate set of the whole festival.
Işıl Bey makes a point of presenting children’s plays every year, to develop a love and appreciation of theatre among both children and adults. In a conscious decision by the director, all the children’s roles are played by adults. Ansla Coşar, who plays the ten-year-old boy Edmond, explains that he tries to find the feelings of a child inside himself; in watching the musical, it is hard to see a ten-year-old in an actor with a visible five-o’clock shadow, and it is hardly more believable than Sabri Özmener’s Mr. Beaver.
The production was vibrant, joyous, and uninhibited, with none of the philosophical, psychological, and historical weight that both enriches and burdens the productions of many other theaters at the festival. The entire cast takes the stage time and again to perform mass song-and-dance numbers that mark the grand old musical; the City Theater of Ankara is playing Broadway musical of the 1940s and 1950s, more South Pacific than Les Misérables.
Before their performance, one pressing question from the Tatar press was the choice of material– how could a Turkish theater put on an English children’s novel, let alone one with such explicitly Christian symbolism?
Tomris Çetinel Çuhadaroğlu, the Ankara theater’s artistic director, joined with director Işıl Kasapoğlu to refute the idea that a majority-Muslim company and audience would have trouble with such material, saying, “Theatre is not a motto. Shakespeare’s plays were written sometimes with specific religious conflicts in mind — we don’t emphasize this in King Lear, and we don’t need to worry about it here.” She went on to point out that the Ankara theater has presented Turkish plays with Muslim content in Paris with great success. For the Ankara company, this is a fairy tale, a children’s tale, to be told for its beauty.
Indeed, the company did not shirk from Narnia‘s Christian narrative– Arslan stands, arms outstretched, head tossed back, and gives himself up to the Witch’s henchmen to redeem Edmund’s sins, and they prod and strike him in a striking rendition of the Passion. The noble lion’s return to the grateful and distraught children is similarly performed as a Second Coming.
In not limiting itself to Turkic or Muslim material, the Ankara theater provided welcome contrast to the greater part of the companies at the festival; many of the national theaters showed a single-minded focus on the history and culture of the nationality. Still, there is a place for ideology, or problematic questions, or critical engagement with source materials — and Nauruz is a celebration of this ongoing process of self-definition.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Two hours, one intermission. Performance at 1 pm, June 3, 2011 at Kamal Tatar State Academic Theater.
Flop-Eared Ilyuk, premiered 17 December 2008. Forty minutes, no intermission. Performance at noon, May 30, 2011 at Akiat Tatar State Puppet Theater.