“In life, as onstage, if you do nothing, then nothing happens.”
So begins the chapter “Puppets Alive” in Playing a Part by Daria Wilke, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.
This chapter portrays an act of protest inside a Moscow theater: a new puppet master, devoted to marionette making but aware that he gained his post through family connections—displacing a true master of the art—breaks the puppets so that the legendary former master must return to help fix them.
When the former master Lyolik returns and the puppets come back to life, the show goes on. The theater’s cast of actor-puppeteers rejoices, and the artistic director—who had dismissed Lyolik to save money—finds a way to pay two masters, Lyolik and the now-respected Filipp.
Narrating their tale is Grisha, a young teen with parents in the cast, who had also worried for Lyolik. Grisha had even planned, with fellow “theater kid” and godsister Sashok, to break the puppets himself, though hurting Lyolik’s creations felt like taking lives. It was only after Grisha and Sashok had pored over drawings, joints, lines and hooks to learn how to do the deed—and anguished over it—that they found the marionettes cracking due to someone else’s daring act.
And they remembered they were not alone.
Playing a Part, which centers on the theater, spotlights many situations that seem dark until someone acts, often with unasked help from others.
An elderly puppet maker—whom Lyolik himself reveres—is stuck in a charity home but served tea by a regal prima ballerina, and encouraged by Lyolik on visits.
Lyolik is driven to visits by Sam, Grisha’s favorite actor who is emigrating to Holland to escape homophobia. The theater company sends Sam off as his own parents cannot.
Bereft at losing Sam and scared because Sashok faces major heart surgery, Grisha throws himself into making a puppet for Sashok. This requires hours and days in the workshop with patterns, clay, glue, and needle and thread, and Grisha still lacks a proper hat for the puppet. Sam sends him one from Holland unbidden.
Grisha takes the puppet to Sashok in hospital, holding it as coached by Lyolik, its face painted alive by Filipp.
Grisha gets teased at school but saved when Sashok appears with an idea.
Grisha himself stands up to a prejudiced grandfather, who dismisses Grisha’s parents for their “ragamuffin profession” and Grisha for missing Sam. Grisha’s mother defends Grisha, and when the grandfather leaves, perhaps never to return, she holds Grisha.
The theater itself holds all who appear in this novel, seeming to cry with the sad and thrill with the happy:
“The theater starts murmuring, speaking, tramping and rustling. It has conversations in different voices, it slams doors, it creaks open window vents, its steps snarl, and it laughs delicately, strumming the iron stairs. The dressing room doors creak and slam, as if they’ve decided to run a marathon and are rushing endlessly back and forth.”
To Grisha, this theater is as alive as Sam, Sashok, the artistic director, Lyolik and Filipp, and the lighting tech who seems to have coffee running through her veins. The theater forms part of a family, a neighborhood, and indeed, a whole world.
The world leaps from a handsome book, designed by Sharismar Rodriguez, that more than earns a place alongside tween theater fiction such as Drama by Raina Telgemeier and the Nate series by Tim Federle.
Playing a Part came into English after editor Emily Clement read of it in The Atlantic and acquired it for Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. Arthur A. Levine recently formed an independent publishing company closely watched in #worldkidlit: Levine Querido.
The translator of Playing a Part, Marian Schwartz, is known for many works including her rendering of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
Don’t miss Playing a Part!
Playing a Part
By Daria Wilke
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
2015, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
- Article in The Atlantic that inspired U.S. publication of Playing a Part
- Interview with translator Marian Schwartz at Cynsations
- Review of Playing a Part by Olga Bukhina for GLLI in 2017*
*Playing a Part was published one year too early to be considered for the first GLLI YA Translated Book Prize, but its repeat appearances here suggest that it would have been a contender!