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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Theatre review: Tombstone: A Cardboard Western is complex but not always compelling

Innovative and giddy puppet mask show lags at times

Ramshackle Theatre’s high concept show, Tombstone – A Cardboard Western, often dazzles in its inventiveness and sense of play, but it is not always compelling.

Tombstone is an amusement park staffed by robot cowboys. The only humans are the gruff boss and his daughter Petal. She wants to perform in the park, but it requires a man and horse. Luckily for her a quiet wanderer moseys into town.

As Petal and her new sidekick rehearse their act, a terrible accident takes place where the only way to save the badly injured Petal is to turn her into a robot-hybrid. Meanwhile a robot uprising is brewing, and in a Westworld-meets-Metropolis twist Petal looks like she might ally with her metal friends.

Created by Brian Fidler and Edward Westehous (who also did the art design), the stage has three main playing areas atop tables with cardboard sets. Cardboard puppets are manipulated in and among the set pieces as they are filmed with a live camera feed projected on a large screen at the back.

It’s often deliciously complicated. For example, on one set we have a master shot of a small scale roller coaster on which the characters are riding. On the other, larger puppets ride in the cars in close-up. The camera switches back and forth between these two views.

At times the cast of four also don large cardboard masks of the characters, coming downstage to act out scenes.

The intricate details are often cheeky and filled with artistic playfulness. At one point as an army of robots cheer, the camera is positioned upside down and they are turned over as a group. Their arms swing free because of gravity and on the screen it is as if their hands are in the air waving. It is both exquisite and goofy.

The issue with Tombstone – A Cardboard Western though is not the plentiful moments of wonder and creativity, but in those where the mind is allowed to wander, or when your eyes glance around the stage or the audience.

Much like The Princess Show, Tombstone is innovative, but is not entirely involving. With story the key to any show, a lack of engagement can be especially true of one with a liberal use of multimedia. Often creators become so enraptured in the how, they sometimes forget to focus on the story they are telling.

If the protagonists do not have a compelling backstory with a focused and important goal it is hard to invest. The puppets, although rough-hewed and beautiful, are much like television’s Thunderbirds, coldly expressionless. The horse narrator also speaks dispassionately in monotone creating distance, rather than luring us into the storytelling.

Complexity does not necessarily mean captivating. While we admire the workmanship, it doesn’t touch our heart. Still, the stellar craftsmanship from the artists in Tombstone – Andrea Boal, Brian Fidler, Michel Gignac – is an audacious accomplishment. The result is like nothing you have ever seen, and often breathtaking.

Tombstone – A Cardboard Western co-created by Geneviève Doyon, Jessica Hickman, and Claire Ness. Directed by Jessica Hickman. A Ramshackle Theatre production playing as part of the 2017 rEvolver Theatre Festival. On stage at The Cultch (1398 Venables St, Vancouver) until May 28. Visit for tickets and information.

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