In “The Soldier’s Tale”, opening at The Aurora on Nov. 11th, the Narrator (l, L. Peter Callender) advises the Soldier (c, puppeteered by Muriel Maffre) during a card game with the Devil (r, Joan Mankin)
In “The Soldier’s Tale”, opening at The Aurora on Nov. 11th, the Narrator (l, L. Peter Callender) advises the Soldier (c, puppeteered by Muriel Maffre) during a card game with the Devil (r, Joan Mankin)

The Aurora Theatre Company is leaping beyond tradition with a kinetic classic, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale”, created in 1918, and brought to new life through the imaginings of co-directors Muriel Maffre and Tom Ross.

The libretto for “A Soldier’s Tale” was written by the French-speaking Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and when Maffre, a former San Francisco Ballet prima ballerina, first encountered the story she was seduced by its colorful, humorous language. “We chose a translation that kept the same flavor,” she said, about the English adaptation penned by Donald Pippin, Artistic Director and founder of San Francisco’s Pocket Opera.

“It’s in rhyme, so that gives it a particular propulsion,” Ross, the Aurora’s Artistic Director, noted.

Momentum, gravity, rhythm and dance are at the root of the play’s structures. Maffre is quick to give credit for that to Stravinsky, whose score infuses the work with devilish dissonances and rhythms.

“It’s built in by Stravinsky: the dance part was not an idea of mine,” she said. “The whole stage is infused with movement. I’ve kept the tango, waltz, ragtime, and the devil’s dance from the original.”

Ross said working on the play is like mounting a musical, with dance, music, and theater parts all being rehearsed at once. “I’m not leading the charge,” he said. “I’m helping Muriel by being her eyes in the audience. She’s about gesture and I’m a dialogue guy, so I am working with that.”

Maffre is relying on advice from Ross to convey her original vision to the actors and to acclimate to the Aurora’s deep thrust stage.

For choreography, she is turning to a puppet created by David Densmore. “I told the actors the puppet is our teacher. It’s four feet tall and obviously, something particular happens with his limbs. There is something touching about a puppet because they have limitations. But when you look at them, with the eyes of a dancer, they have freedom of movement.”

The challenge of the play, both Maffre and Ross said, is in helping the audience focus amid the density of the production. Fortunately, they believe Berkeley audiences appreciate a stretch and bring an intellectual curiosity to the theater.

“Western culture is built around material things at the top, but Berkeley is one that historically questions, and will tune in well with the messages,” said Maffre.

According to the co-directors, the story’s central take-away is not an anti-military position — despite the tale being about a soldier who makes a deal with the devil and trades his fiddle for a book predicting the future. “It’s much more an anti-greed play,” Ross said. “It’s about someone who becomes a part of the 1% and his dissatisfaction with that. With all the Occupy action, it’s what the country is interested in now.”

Maffre, who has been living in Berkeley while her home in San Francisco is being renovated, believes audiences in this area, and beyond, ask the same questions she finds fascinating. “We are always asking ourselves, what face has the devil? Is he inside of us, or outside? This says, Beware of these desires to amass material things. Be aware of lives that put things at the top.”

During the months she has lived near the university, she has found the community exotic. “There is more life in the street than in San Francisco. Peoples’ attitudes are more vocal and there is more sharing and mixing of generations, especially around the campus,” she said.

That engagement is something Michael Mansfield, the Aurora’s Education Director, will exploit during his Friday Forum and Talk-Back events. “Berkeley folks are tracking what’s going on in the world,” he said. “They have an action-based understanding of how to be involved in the community and how to apply what they encounter.”

On December 2nd, he’ll lead audience members in a 20-minute dialogue titled “Playing God: Unfairly Knowing the Unknown”. He will ask: “What makes us not willing to accept what happens in life? Why do we think we have to rig the game? Or, are people happy to let things unfold?”. With a shorter, 75-minute show and a unique blend of folk tale, dance, puppetry, music and drama, Mansfield expects the conversation to be spirited.

Lou Fancher is a writer and journalist who lives in the Bay Area.

Aurora: 20 years at heart of Berkeley’s cultural life [09.22.11] 

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