Review: Love's Infrastructure, a striking theatrical collaboration of Torry Bend and Bombadil

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Torry Bend with the members of Bombadil: (from left): Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • Torry Bend with the members of Bombadil: (from left): Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson
Love's Infrastructure

Duke Performances
@ PSI Theatre,  Durham Arts Council
Closed Jan. 26

Let’s start with the most striking thing about Love’s Infrastructure, the new collaboration between puppeteer Torry Bend and pop-folk trio Bombadil: how the show works. Imagine watching The Muppet Show while simultaneously seeing all the hubbub behind the scenes. While Bombadil plays music, Bend’s crew of designers, managers and puppeteers creates a complex puppet show, projecting the results at the center of the stage, while the “making of”—sets, puppetry, cameras and computers—spills out behind the screen.

The delightful opening scene, for example, shows the sun—a round bit of tin foil discreetly held in a puppeteer’s hand—rising over a green countryside. We descend to a bird’s-eye view of a country road, with cars zipping around verdant curves, and then level off to the driver’s perspective as cookie-cutter neighborhoods—rows of cardboard houses glued to a wheel—churn by. At last, a whole city springs into view when a puppeteer swings its set into place behind the others.

This mode of performance, though not unheard of, is novel enough that audiences will find more than enough to keep their interest. In fact, Love’s Infrastructure is so visually stimulating that it’s possible to forget that Bombadil is playing live, which is a pity, since the band more than holds up its end of the show. Bombadil’s songs go down easily but lean toward being anthems, sung in lilting tenor voices and played in perfect sync over heartbeat rhythms.

The story-songs float over the narrative of Love’s Infrastructure, a quirky modern romance between a commuter and a tollbooth agent. Somehow, I fell behind on the plot, catching the twists dreamily and belatedly. A scene where two puppets’ hands pass sparkly gewgaws back and forth, sometimes pausing to hold them to the light, struck me as a pretty metaphor for courtship and attraction. Only later did I realize that the commuter was actually giving these little objects to the tollbooth agent in lieu of coin, getting her fired and setting the stage for a heroic act.

I think I lost the thread because I was swept up in another story entirely: the story of the puppeteers. I often found myself watching them instead of the screen, rapt by this one’s intricate sheaf of braids, that one’s smile of concentration, another’s lean and muscled back as he hunched over the scene he was filming, or the strong and graceful hands with which a fourth crew member maneuvered a puppet. Their silent, cooperative struggles and triumphs were more engaging to me than the sweet but rather anemic central romance.

Following the puppeteers meant feeling stressed for them, because on opening night, Bend and her company seemed to be uncomfortably pushing the limits of their abilities. Take, for example, the scene where the puppet-hero escapes his confines in order to save his crush. He leaps onto the screen—now recorded rather than visibly manipulated from backstage—and, projected onto the white-clad body of a puppeteer, enters the real world. The image is poetic in theory, but the puppeteer found it difficult to keep the projection on his body. At any rate, the shallow space of PSI Theatre makes the illusions nearly impossible to maintain in all seats.

Still, imagine this scene with me for a moment, from a different vantage: What if it’s not so much about the puppet rising from determinism into free will, but more about the puppeteer abandoning power for vulnerability? He becomes a visible body rather than an invisible pair of hands. This brings us back to the title, Love’s Infrastructure. What vast systems move under the apparent world? Who makes our lives and amours possible, and what do we make possible? What do we work for and what does it cost us?

All puppetry proposes invisible causes, but by making the causes visible, Love’s Infrastructure foregrounds these philosophical questions without quite plumbing them. That’s why I’d call this show a launch rather than a landing for Bend and Bombadil.

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