Well, this is a first! Puppets scare me so I haven’t really sought out puppet shows - or as the fancy people call the fancier kind, ‘marionette theatre’. But a visit to the Rezo Gabriadze Theatre in Tbilisi, Georgia (not that Georgia) (unless you thought of the former-Soviet country (then you’d be right)) is one of the must-dos when visiting that city. I don’t know about you, but when I think marionette show, I think of John Cusack creepy AF in “Being John Malkovich”, a performance that still gives me nightmares because he made Malkovich’s entire life about creepy puppets?? Malko was in the og sunken place! So sad. Or I think of the ‘I got no strings to hold me down’ bit from Pinocchio and that’s equally terrifying so yeah, I’d usually say nah thanks to marionettes with their creepy faces and their creepy small but emotive hands. But now I will first think of Rezo Gabriadze’s surprisingly poignant show “The Autumn of My Springtime” and how wonderful it is. I’m not rushing out to see more scary puppets, but I fully insist that all Tbilisi visitors do.
The show begins with old man Valram, a very old man indeed, talking to his bird-friend Boris about how tired his poor heart is. The puppeteers, five adults dressed in black, soon vanish into the background and you focus only on the intricate, perfectly tuned movements of the ancient doll. Anyone who has seen “Avenue Q” knows how easy it is to go from “How am I going to focus on the puppets and not stare at the human actors the entire time?” to “Omg I forgot these were puppets”. Valram’s hands lifting to gesture despite it taking all his energy was so realistic and moving that when he soon died (like five minutes in, so not a spoiler) (actually we’re going to be giving all the spoilers but odds are you aren’t seeing this so whatevs), it was quite sad.
So Boris takes it upon himself to look after Domna, the ancient wife of Valram, now that her husband is gone and she needs to pay the bills. Boris is often referred to endearingly (or maybe grammatically; it might just be a sentence structure thing but that’s less adorable) as Boria, and little Boria is all that Domna has now (though the relationship is still unclear) (as it is a bird). Domna’s mannerisms were like Valram’s, that precise articulation that makes you forget that they’re puppets. The work was so impressive. Boris the Bird’s puppeteer had a much less precise job, since the little orange shock of feathers really just had to keep fluttering the whole time, but he was onstage for most of the show and I assume that gets exhausting.
Boria sells all of Domna’s belongings to a moneylender friend to get her going, and I’m prettayyyyy sure the moneylender friend’s name was - I shit you not - SHALOM. At first I thought the dude riding the bicycle maniacally and singing about his life and money and biking was just repeatedly shouting Shalom so the audience knew he was a jew but I realized/husband told me that he was just shouting his name over and over, because that’s less weird, and that his name happened to be Shalom. Of course it was. And of course the moneylender was Jewish. Oh mild racism.
After the super random moneylender-on-a-giant-bicycle scene where I thought hmm this is kind of nutty, it went super off the rails nutty, to places I never could have imagined, yet remained, somehow, grounded in relatable humanity. The next scene featured little Boria going to the bank and talking to his friend...the statue on the door of the bank. The statue was named Dionidas, and he was in love with a girl who danced around nearby. Like a human girl, I think. He referred to her as his flora, his fauna, and Boris saw an opportunity in his friend’s love. Boris helps Dionidas the talking statue and the human lady reconcile, so the statue is supes happy and opens the doors (his torso?) and lets his birdfriend take some money from the bank. No big deal, easy as pie. The harder part is for Boria to find a way to give the money to Domna without her knowing that he robbed a bank. (Does it count as robbing if the guarding statue lets you take the money?) So he repeatedly just ‘happens’ to find oh a 25 ruble note here, a 25 ruble note there, for Domna’s benefit. When he tells her how he found each one, he begins by saying “Oh I laughed so hard, you wouldn’t believe how hard I laughed - I found this 25 ruble note in a tree/in a bucket/falling from an airplane/pinned to an accordionist’s face” (these are all real examples). Finally Domna is like “Stop lying to me ya damn bird! I know you didn’t just find this money!” but she does get all her possessions back from Shylock so she kind of doesn’t care?
There’s no time for figuring out Domna’s position on the matter though, because Boris is ready to parrrrtayyyyy. The bird (remember, this is a bird) goes to what looks like a British Christmas party with lots of drunk worker-looking men and lots of drunk women dressed like secretaries in a place that looks like a bowling alley. They forgo puppets for this scene and have mostly giant cardboard people bopping up and down. There’s a big toast Boris and the men give and this is literally what it was: “God bless Georgian heavy industry and its women with light morals!” Then Boris may have raped a woman but it was all very unclear considering that he is a bird and the woman was a gigantic cardboard cutout and before you can say ‘wait what the hell’ the cardboard cutouts of all the women lift up their skirts to show their underwear and I was like whaaaat isssss happpppening. This was by far the most random scene I’ve seen in pretty much anything ever. Also it was unnecessary; I don’t get why it was in this show, but I guess that toast was pretty good.
But things aren’t all fun and games for little Boria, because the cops may be on to him. He did rob a bank, remember? The cops - and one giant officer on a giant horse - barge into Domna’s house since she is his main known associate looking for the little ‘sky tramp’ as they amazingly call Boris. But Domna’s like ‘I haven’t seen him in a while but also I’m not his master or anything he is a wild bird who just happens to talk and do human stuff like rob banks and drink alcohol’ and the cops are like ‘well if you see him tell him he’s in big trouble mister because he robbed a bank and also he flew into a movie theatre and tried to kiss the projection of Vivian Leigh and ended up poking holes in the screen (this is a real thing they said) and also he is causing all kinds of problems and ruckus and the people are outraged because they hate sky tramps and we need to arrest him’ and despite Boris being the only friend she has in the world, Domna doesn’t really seem too broken up about it, but I guess that’s that Soviet external show of strength that babushkas pride themselves on.
Meanwhile, Boris is out flying by the window of a woman named Ninel, yes a human woman whom he is in love with. And she’s in love with him. We learn from their conversation that they fell in love in middle school (???) when she was trying to learn and he was flapping outside the window distracting her and now they can’t be together and they bemoan the fact by talking shit about Charles Darwin. I’m not kidding. Boria yells “Damn you Charles Darwin and your ape ancestors!” and Ninel cries “What did Charles Darwin ever know about love” and we were kicking each other so hard.
But unfortunately, the cops find Boris and trap him in a bucket (“anything but the bucket!” Boris screams) and he goes to jail, the awful kind where he has to wear black and white striped clothes on his tiny bird body and it’s kind of hilarious. Domna makes the arduous climb to visit him and despite her stern demeanor she shows how much she cares in their conversation about how he’s holding up. And in this exchange comes my favorite line in the whole thing that made me laugh so hard in a quiet theatre where no one else thought this was a particularly funny line but I was there CACKLING. Domna inquires about the conditions and, wanting to protect his health from the outside chill, she tells Boris: “Ask the other prisoners if you can change beds, farther from the window - tell them that you’re sick, say you’re a bird...” SAY YOU’RE A BIRD! HAHAHAHAH I was struggling not to scream-laugh. Like I’m p sure they’d know he was a bird from the start but I loveeee using that as an excuse.
Domna’s little peasant life is rocked quite a bit from the scandal, and she tries to avoid the prying eyes and unwelcome comments from nosy neighbors. But she can’t get away from one such neighbor, a very bad man who corners her and comments on Boris: “If he had raped someone, say a sparrow, or a pigeon, or a nightingale, I would have defended him, saying it was a crime of passion. But stealing money from the communal funds is unforgivable.” Man aliiive this is some commie bullshit! It reminded me of a North Korean movie I once saw that repeated lines like “all praise our great leader for allowing this” and “we are all important parts of the machine that makes our great country turn” or whatever crap like that from dictatorships. Yeesh.
Anyway, the day of Boris’s trial arrives, and since he’s hundo p guilty the big decision is whether Domna should be punished as an accomplice. Boria is adamant that his friend is innocent, even though she benefited from his crime, because she didn’t know and she’s just a poor old lady who will die soon anyway. The prosecutor is really mean and scary but luckily the judge - a GIGANTIC cardboard cutout of an old man in a double-breasted cardigan, because that’s what judges wear while sitting on the bench in any country - lets Domna go. Boris is sentenced to a life spent in a window display in a hunter’s shop, which is RULL disturbing but I guess better than the gulag? Boris asks for permission to give a speech before beginning his sentence and the judge allows it, and the speech he wanted to give was just to scream his lungs out at the mean prosecutor and it was SPELL-BINDING. The best part by far was when Boris A BIRD yells at him “I’LL SHIT ON YOUR FATHER’S GRAVE 23 TIMES YOU CROSS-EYED SCUM!” true story!
Okay I know I’ve shared all absolutely ridiculous or hilarious bits of this play and you’re probably thinking ‘um didn’t you say that this was moving and poignant” and it really was despite well everything I’ve been talking about. Through all the jokes and things I found to be funny even if they weren’t jokes, they were telling the story of a woman who had no hope in the world except this friend, who risked and gave up everything to help her survive. And to top that all off, he wasn’t human, yet he was the only one to show some humanity. And then he got kind of out of control and broke tons of laws but isn’t that the most human part of all? The ending packed a punch, with Boria in his shop window, passing his time, when the officer comes to visit and tells him to go mourn for Domna because no one else is. Yes, Domna has died, and Boris needs to pay his respects at her grave, which is next to Valram’s, where we began. Boris, however, is shot when he approaches - whether randomly, or by the hunter whose shop he sits in, or by the cops who may have set him up, it’s unclear (I’m going with the cops though) - and he struggles with all his might to make it atop his friends’ graves before his body gives out. It’s pretty dire, heartbreaking, as he makes it to his resting place with the people he cared about most. Boris says some deep stuff about humanity in his final moments as well as throughout the show, and despite being a bird, he nails the injustice and the sadness and the need for someone to care about you. And it’s quite lovely. AND he gives us incredible quotes that we’ve been shouting all week like SAY YOU’RE A BIRD! and “I’LL SHIT ON YOUR FATHER’S GRAVE 23 TIMES YOU CROSS-EYED SCUM!” Anyway, go see puppet shows if you are ever in Tbilisi. Amazing work, Rezo.
All Russian tourists who were pretty okay, although we prepped for it to be the worst audience ever since it was a tourist thing so anything better than that was a nice surprise.
The theatre is a semi-small single room upstairs from the nice wooden lobby. There are only two bathroom stalls but that wasn’t a problem for me because I had THE BEST SEAT and you need to get it if you go - B1. The second row, but the first seat on that aisle for some reason sticks much further out that all the other rows so I was closest to the door! Heyoooo! They also had this amazing No Cell Phone symbol in the corner of the ceiling, which I believe every single theatre should have.