Up on a large movie screen, a verdant stand of trees rises out of dark, moist earth as birds chirp and a rabbit bounds into view. Never mind the gargantuan human hand that drops into the scene to manipulate the animal, which is little more than a toy figurine amid stalks of parsley jammed in the dirt; it is a scene of bucolic serenity.

On the stage, just below the screen, performer Herman Helle removes the toy from a miniature movie set as sound artist/composer Arthur Sauer waves a lit blowtorch in front of a nearby mic, somehow creating the low rumble of an approaching storm. Helle lights his own torch and aims it at the set; onscreen, the scene erupts in billowing flames and the green forest seems to melt under the roaring conflagration.

Welcome to The Great War, a live, one-hour video puppet animation of the 1914-18 Western Front by the Dutch miniature theater troupe Hotel Modern. Since its founding in 1997 by actors Pauline Kalker and Arlène Hoornwg, the theater company has made an international reputation, tackling sprawling subjects normally off-limits to the theater — like world war or Nazi death camps — by staging them on a tabletop.

A dry ice mustard gas attack; Credit: Photo by Joost van den Broek

A dry ice mustard gas attack; Credit: Photo by Joost van den Broek

The text of The Great War is taken from a cache of actual letters written by a French soldier to his mother that was discovered in a Marseilles bookshop. But the scenes of muddy trenches, mustard gas attacks, howitzer bombardments and a corpse-strewn no man’s land created in front of the audience out of doll miniatures, toy soldiers and popsicle sticks are at once eerily familiar and whimsically removed — as if Stanley Kubrick were filming Paths of Glory in a child’s sandbox.

According to Sauer, the show — and Hotel Modern’s performance aesthetic — originated in a 2001 conversation he had with Helle, a visual artist who was also working as a model maker for the architect Rem Koolhaas. Kalker wanted to do a theater performance using models and live video cameras, and Helle had come up with the idea of a dramatic “living landscape” set during the First World War.

“And since I’m a composer as well,” Sauer remembers, “he asked me to do something with a symphony orchestra. Then I said to him, ‘Yeah, if you are going to do the camera and all the images live, I will do all the sounds live. And so we will make like a live animation movie.’”

“In the First World War, the landscape was a big drama,” Helle says. “And we can tell the story of the soldiers through the landscape, which [becomes] a sort of metaphor for what happens to the millions of soldiers.”

Blowing up toy dramas into cinematic spectacles turns out to be a potently poetic formula that Hotel Modern has parlayed into a repertoire of nine major shows. These include 2005’s Kamp, their acclaime,d day-in-the-life puppet documentary about the Holocaust that is performed using 3,000 plasticine stick figures on a 36-by-33-foot cardboard model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Then they created 2009’s Shrimp Tales, a sweeping, 50-scene tapestry of life and death in which humanity is portrayed by an ensemble of 300 dried shrimp.

“Puppets can have an interesting [effect] when you deal with very serious things on a great, grand scale,” Kalker observes. “We have this battle scene with a lot of fire and bombing, and there’s a lot of smoke. So the audience can also smell the war, because they can smell the smoke. And because they’ve decided to believe that the puppet is alive, when the puppet dies, the impact is also very big. Because you give the puppet life in your imagination, [its death] becomes really very emotional.”

Arlène Hoornwg and Pauline Kalker; Credit: Photo by Joost van den Broek

Arlène Hoornwg and Pauline Kalker; Credit: Photo by Joost van den Broek

Those paradoxical, childlike impulses of creative and destructive play — defamiliarized in Hotel Modern’s miniature epics — emerge as a trenchant comment on the real-life propensity of adults for periodic, near-apocalyptic self-annihilation.

“Everything is dying or getting destroyed in our shows,” Helle says wryly. “But I think it has to do with our generation. We were raised by people who were in the Second World War in Europe. And there is an underlying idea that’s in our lives, from being raised by people who experienced prisoner of war camps, and the Holocaust, and the bombings of the cities, that things can change overnight.”

“We want to show the character of humanity as a species that is capable of doing horrible things,” Kalker adds, “but that is also not in charge. People make a mess, but they are not in control of the horrible things that they do. Most individuals are not bad. Yet very bad things happen.”

The Great War plays at REDCAT, 631 W 2nd St., downtown; April 17-19. redcat.org.

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