SHOW: Soldier Bear 

GENRE: Theater/Puppetry

GROUP: Leila and Pantea Productions

ATTENDED: Sept 13, 2:00 p.m., Plays and Players

CLOSES: Sept. 19

BRIEF SELF-DESCRIPTION: A true story from World War II, spanning five countries and two species, showing what makes a family has no boundaries when a Polish soldier adopts an orphaned cub irrevocably changing both their lives. Puppetry, dance, shadow theater, and animation combined.

WE THINK: This work-in-progress, workshop presentation relates the improbable but true story Wojtec, of an Iranian-born bear cub who became part of the Polish army, without fully committing (or limiting itself) to either a strictly realistic or fantastical, romanticized portrayal. It is, on the whole, a sweet and appealing production, featuring a mixture of engaging live theater and various forms of puppetry – shadow puppets, marionettes, and others – along with simple, but evocative, visual effects.

Unfortunately, despite a fascinating historical premise and several lovingly rendered characters – including Petyr (Bob Stineman), a soldier and fiercely devoted family man who is the bear’s primary “handler,” but sees him as a son; his wife Ania (Carol Anne Raffa); his jovial army buddy Stanislav (Aaron Lanthrop), depicted as a puppet made from a jumble of mess-hall objects, with a salt-shaker for a head – and their opening scene together being understated and deeply touching, I struggled to find a way into the emotional and historical reality of the situation at hand.

I was left with questions both practical and psychological: apart from perpetrating assorted chuckle-worthy hijinks, what did the bear actually do as a solider; and, how did they manage to convince higher-up officers to let them keep him around? As charming as the medium-dog-sized puppet bear was, judicious use of a bear-suited actor might have helped flesh out the emotional relationship between Petyr and Wojtec, which often felt like it was being told rather than shown.

The unorthodox staging – both the audience and the performance were situated on the stage of Plays and Players, leaving the house empty but distractingly visible – didn’t do the production any favors either.

Still, there was a lot to enjoy here, and I would welcome the chance to see a more developed version of this piece in a more genuinely intimate space with better sight lines, and perhaps a somewhat refurbished script.