What was that exotic, addled curiosity that ambled through the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater Friday and Saturday? The 90-minute show, called "Tall Horse" and based on the true story of a giraffe that walked across parts of France in the early 19th century, delivered some eye-catching puppetry by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company and Mali's Sogolon Puppet Troupe. It also sank under the elephantine weight of its undigested sociopolitical notions.
When a character appeared in a busy back room of a modern national museum asking for enlightenment, we were surely in for some learning. With a bromide about the way perception often controls reality, "Tall Horse" flashed back to the saga of Sogo Jan, that ambassadorial giraffe who made intercultural waves in the Age of Enlightenment.
Sogo Jan was the brainchild of the pasha of Egypt, delightfully rendered onstage in Jabba the Hutt dimensions. The pasha puppet was easily 10 feet high by 10 feet wide (that's seated, which the regal pasha always was) and required a small army to operate its massive head and arms. The crafty pasha intended Sogo Jan as a sort of weapon, a political stalking horse, an old-fashioned diplomatic bribe -- the gift that eases the way toward friendship and cooperation. (Think pandas.) There were, then, sinister ripples amid the whimsy.
But Kephra Burns's script is an imperfect storm that turns these ripples into turgid chop. Grown-ups could go mad trying to sort out the imperialism, skullduggery, aesthetic revelations and reversals of field that swirl around the serene giraffe, and the kids -- well, they could simply giggle as, for instance, the giraffe heftily relieved itself in the direction of an enemy. Sometimes politics is simple.
Director Marthinus Basson might have done everyone a favor by streamlining the design of this strikingly cluttered show, which never really left that museum storeroom. Gaggles of human actors and clusters of puppets with multiple handlers competed for attention amid the towering shelves, with busy computer graphics -- green lines racing across a black screen -- adding to the confusion on the back wall.
The only thing to admire, really, was the beauty of the puppets themselves. Sogo Jan was 15 feet tall, operated by two puppeteers on stilts; she was a majestic sight, and expertly manipulated, kicking with power and craning her long neck with expressive grace. Other memorable images included the exquisitely rendered struggles of a baby giraffe, the romantic flight of an airborne Frenchwoman descending like a cloud on her lover, a diplomat with the long skinny legs of a praying mantis. No wonder the Kennedy Center's Alicia Adams was inspired to play matchmaker for these two troupes. The wonder is at the result.