The Puppet Theater in Maribor, Slovenia
The Puppets for the “Ward of our Lady of Mercy” play:
I love all kinds of puppets, and so I also adore puppet theaters.
I have visited puppet museums in many parts of the world.
Once in China, we spent a whole day touring a fascinating puppet exhibition, seeing how artists drew and then carved the translucent puppets from leather hide.
Those were “Pole Puppets,” which are puppets that are animated from below, by raising and lowering thin bamboo poles attached to their limbs.
We watched the puppet masters and listened to the musicians behind the scenes for hours.
You do not always have to understand the language in order to enjoy the show, as long as you get a program that outlines the story.
In this way, it is a bit like listening to an Opera, where you do not have to understand old Italian in order to enjoy it.
At the Chinese Puppet festival, I bought an array of puppets from royals to ladies of the court, dragons and servants, intending to one day write a story and animate them in a cartoon.
In Mandalay, Myanmar, we saw a great performance at a small puppet theater.
It starred handmade puppets who wore very elaborate embroidered clothing.
I bought two puppets, one a magician and the other a benevolent spirit.
They hang in my bedroom in Colorado and I often joke with them, talk or listen to them when I feel the need for advice.
We have seen puppets in Indonesia, in Spain, in Korea, in India, in Malaysia, and in Japan, and I seize every opportunity available to see puppets whenever we travel.
Here in Eastern Europe, there are puppet museums everywhere.
For me, this is how it should be!
Puppets are NOT just for kids.
They were traditionally used to tell stories, pass on traditions, share religious insights, and perhaps most often, to make political and social criticism.
In Slovenia, we saw a wonderful puppet exhibition in a gallery inside the Ljubljana medieval castle.
When planning the renovation of the old ruined castle, the architects designed gallery spaces inside using glass and steel as well as the old stone blocks.
It is a very impressive and creative restoration..
Inside one such gallery, we saw a wonderful photography exhibit of portraits of tribespeople from northeastern India and from Ethiopia.
But the most exciting exhibition, at least for me, was of the old puppets.
Most were made of wood and depicted the soldiers, farmers and ordinary people that populate many Eastern European folk stories that I knew from my childhood.
There were also video clips of puppet animations of those sweet folktales.
We also saw more wooden string puppets inside the old Jewish synagogue in Ljubljana.
In Maribor, we got REALLY lucky, or you could say blessed.
We toured an exhibition of Automatons and puppets, when a woman approached us and asked if we wanted an explanation of what we were looking at.
We gratefully agreed.
Her name was Bojana Šaljić Podešva, and she was actually the composer of the beautiful music used in the unique puppet show we were touring.
The music was sweet and sad, at once both bittersweet and immensely touching.
Bojana composed it for two string basses, but now it is performed with one bass and an accordion.
I have always loved the sound of the accordion.
It reminds me of the Roma Gypsies, with their sad romances, vagabond lifestyle and upbeat “devil may care” dances.
The playwright is Ivan Cankar, who is considered to be the greatest Slovenian writer and playwright.
He was born in the late 1800’s and he was also a poet, critic, essayist and political activist.
The puppets we saw were all full human size.
They were used in a puppet play that is called “The Ward of our Lady of Mercy.”
The “Ward of our Lady of Mercy” takes place during dark times in Slovenia.
Sickness, poverty and Fascism were the breeding grounds of brutality, ignorance and cruelty.
The play tells the story of fourteen little girls in a convent hospital, left there by their parents to die of various ailments, many of syphilis passed on by their abusive parents, or by the caretakers themselves.
The puppet show was performed by fourteen actresses all dressed in white.
They drifted between animating the puppet girls and rolling them around the stage in their wooden wheelchairs, to becoming the girls and acting as the girls would, while their puppets sat waiting.
I asked if the puppets had clothing or hair during the performances, but Bojana told me that the puppets performed just as they are now.
They were meant to represent the essence of the young girls, not their physical bodies.
The puppets’ frail bodies and white faces with no hair were meant to represent both their raw emotional innards, their sweet souls, and the fact that the girls were on the verge of death.
Despite being disabled, being held in a locked ward in which they all ate and slept waiting for death, Bojana told us that the girls retained their senses of humor, gentleness and even went through spiritual transformations, which made the play rather optimistic, shining with rays of light.
Despite the fact that the themes of the play were religion and death, it was not accepted well when it was first performed.
It ran into trouble with both the state censors and the critics, one famously calling it “refined pornography, brought to artistic perfection,” because of the erotic content of two chapters detailing the sexual abuse of some of the girls.
But the play has persevered because of the transcendent main character, Malchie, whose death is depicted as a sort of mystical transformation, a final redemption from her life’s hardship and misery, and a forgiveness for humanity, even for the most cruel and oppressive people among us.
In Maribor, we stayed in a fabulous modern apartment inside a renovated old hotel.
Along the river Drava, we saw the oldest producing grapevine in the world.
(It is in the Guinness Book of World Records.)
The white swans seemed to glide effortlessly on the Drava river, perhaps because I couldn’t see their webbed feet paddling under water.
Some swans rested on the green riverbanks, eating the grass vigorously.
I guess they needed to balance their diet, much like dogs do when their stomachs are too acidic.
Maribor had much for us to see, including painted old churches, a cathedral, an old castle that was renovated into a museum with amazing Slovenian treasures, a puppet theater, medieval towers, street musicians, farmers markets and many cafes, among them my new favorite tea salon.
Outside Maribor’s puppet theater, we ran into a couple from Estonia.
The man gave us some tips about traveling around the area and said that his wife is a puppeteer, hoping to get a job in the theater in Maribor.
She was trained in Russia and was looking to see if they would let her have a tryout in Maribor.
He asked us when we were planning to visit his home town of Talinn, Estonia, but we didn’t leave enough time on this trip to make it there, so we had to tell him, “Next time!”
From here we move on towards the Slovenian Alps and the Lakes region.
Wishing you lots of joy,