"Or You Could Kiss Me," has marvelous moments. Unfortunately, it has almost no momentum

Eerie solo accordion music fills the air as a pale, bony, outstretched hand gently touches the back of an elderly, wheezing, wheelchair-bound man trailing an oxygen cylinder. It’s a scene of aching sadness, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the two men are life-size, skeleton-like puppets, visibly manipulated by a cast of besuited actors. Handspring Puppet Company (of “War Horse” fame) and writer-director Neil Bartlett’s tale of lifelong love, “Or You Could Kiss Me,” has other marvelous moments like this. Unfortunately, it has almost no momentum.

The two elderly puppet characters — one aged 85, the other facing death at 86, both known simply as Man A and Man B — are

complemented by middle-aged versions of themselves played by actors Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (who together form Handspring).

In addition, we meet the puppet and live-actor versions of their 19-year-old selves at the point when they fall in love, in the repressive South Africa of 1971. The combination of eras and forms sounds confusing, but the methodical nature of Bartlett’s construction and the wholly arresting puppetry, sharply lit on the traverse stage, makes this as legible as it is intriguing.

At its best, the experience of seeing multiple versions of characters from the beginning to the end of a 67-year relationship pays huge dividends. The story is released from dutiful standard chronology, and the puppets add a sense of universality; watching the older men in relation to the younger men adds considerable pathos.

But Bartlett layers this still further. Not only has the dying man not yet made a will; he’s rapidly losing his memory and ability to communicate. Bartlett uses this as an opportunity to detail the workings of memory, presented via a white-coated clinician (Adjoa Andoh) who recites her research as a lecture, with a deliberate but deadening lack of emotion. Andoh, in fact, is a sort of energizing mistress of ceremonies, juggling multiple roles, including the men’s housekeeper and a male taxi driver, with aplomb. But she’s hamstrung by Bartlett’s pacing, which is so doggedly measured that tension is missing.

Immense and touching care is taken in animating the extraordinarily beautiful puppet bodies. Three actors manipulate individual, interconnected parts of a figure made of cane into the body of a swimmer. Backed by Marcus Tilt’s atmospheric music and Christopher Shutt’s non-specific but suggestive sound score, the play has episodes of true invention. But with the audience too often too far ahead of the (in)action, the self-consciousness palls. Heresy though it may be, you find yourself wishing everyone would act faster.

Or You Could Kiss Me

National Theater, Cottesloe London; 324 seats; £32$51 top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in one act by Neil Bartlett and Handspring Puppet Company. Directed by Neil Bartlett.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Rae Smith; lighting, Chris Davey; sound, Christopher Shutt; music, Marcus Tilt, puppet design, Adrian Kohler; production stage manager, Diane Wilmott. Opened, reviewed Oct. 5, 2010. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

With: Adjoa Andoh, Finn Caldwell, Basil Jones, Adrian Kohler, Craig Leo, Tiommy Luther, Mervyn Millar, Marcus Tilt.

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