'Life & Times of Michael K' review — a puppet's adventures tug at the heartstrings

Read our review of The Life and Times of Michael K off Broadway, Lara Foot's stage adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s award-winning novel at St. Ann's Warehouse.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

Life & Times of Michael K, now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is as sprawling as the Karoo desert its title character must cross. The Baxter Theatre Centre and Dusseldorfer Schauspielhaus production tackles the landscape of South African apartheid along with the literal landscape of the war-torn nation its title character traverses. To simplify this narrative and still allow us to project our stories onto Michael’s, he is portrayed as a puppet.

Handspring Puppet Company’s creations, designed and built by Adrian Kohler in collaboration with the rest of the company, are exquisite, lifelike, expressive without venturing to the uncanny valley, and small enough to convey vulnerability without feeling doll-like. (A goat is particularly impressive, its demise heartbreaking.)

The beauty of the puppets, however, is hard to observe in St. Ann’s proscenium space; wrinkles etched onto Michael’s face may only be visible in the projections designed by Yoav Dagan and Kirsti Cumming. A program note from director Lara Foot (who also adapted the script from J.M. Coetzee’s acclaimed novel, in collaboration with Handspring) says the decision to add film allows audiences to “see the puppet inside of the real landscape” of the Karoo. It is impossible to imagine the landscape of St. Ann’s Warehouse did not factor into the decision.

Born with a cleft lip and subjected to bullying and racism, Michael K takes solace in his gardening job and learns to brush off people’s reactions to his appearance and speech. When his ailing mother, Anna K, who has worked her whole life as a domestic servant trapped in a basement bedroom, announces her desire to return to her birthplace, Michael is determined to take her there. Never mind that they don’t have the permits required for mixed-race people to travel, or that she can’t remember exactly where in the distant town of Prince Albert she lived.

Anna is also a puppet, though her roundness conveys her warmth as compared to Michael’s skinny, stiffer reluctance. She is given life with a comforting though exacting hand by Faniswa Yisa, who speaks her voice; puppeteers Roshina Ratnam and Markus Schabbing control her, Michael, and various others. They blend with the ensemble, only occasionally popping into their own personalities, such as when a kind stranger in a hospital waiting room gives Michael a chicken pie that both puppeteers and Carlo Daniels, who voices Michael, gets to eat.

Michael’s largest obstacle is not his disability or his poverty – he reflects that he only grows hungry when the crops he planted first appear – but the vastness of space. Mid-travel, he is caught without a permit and sent to a work camp; his attempts to lay claim to his mother's farm result in the land’s destruction; and even his childhood home in Cape Town offers no comfort without his mother.

“The grass in the park does not stop growing because there is a war,” he reflects, frustrated and near death. The show ends on a note of resilience without giving in to naivete, its protagonist nothing if not realistic.

The Life and Times of Michael K is at St. Ann's Warehouse through December 23.

Photo credit: The Life and Times of Michael K. (Photo by )

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