Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rezo Gabriadze's Old Puppet Theater

Rezo Gabriadze's Old Puppet Theater
Tbilisi, Georgia
Simon Roberts

Wish I had one of these 'old' things . . . well, it used to be old:
Rezo Gabriadze's puppet theater stands in the heart of Tbilisi's Old Town, which is very old indeed. Around the corner are the sulfur baths, where, according to legend, Georgian King Vakhtang I decided to build the city in the fifth century. Up the street is the great Sioni Cathedral from the seventh century.

Gabriadze himself is a Georgian national treasure. I saw his marionette version of the Battle of Stalingrad when I first came to Tbilisi 10 years ago and fell in love with the city. I was ushered into a dank, run-down basement, where I watched, enthralled, as Gabriadze's tiny puppet tanks advanced to the rousing strains of Shostakovich. It was unforgettable.

The theater was a dump, but then, so was the rest of the city. The old buildings were missing many of the elegant narrow bricks first introduced there by the Byzantines. The covered balconies with their delicate latticework, a gift of the Ottomans, were listing and rotting. There was litter everywhere. An apartment's garbage disposal was often its front window.
That has changed, obviously:
It is impossible not to be struck by how much the city has changed since I had last seen it, maybe four years ago. Gabriadze has a renovated theater, which opened in 2010. He designed it with the same cockeyed whimsy he puts into the puppets he makes. A crooked clock tower, encrusted with Gabriadze's handmade tiles, sprouts a pomegranate tree from its roof. A gold-winged angel strikes the hours.

The changes go well beyond the theater. The whole surrounding neighborhood, what the history books used to call Old Tiflis, looks freshly minted. The houses wear bright new paint, and their sagging balconies have somehow pulled themselves up straight. The streets are clean, or at least much cleaner, and there are scores of new cafes and restaurants.
There are other nice images from Tbilisi, Georgia to be seen in Joshua Levin's article, "In Tbilisi, Georgia, Bold New Buildings Rise From the Ruins of Dead Empires" (The New York Times Style Magazine, November 1, 2013).



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