A Life of Their Owners

By Siegel, Marcia B. | American Theatre, December 1994 | Go to article overview

A Life of Their Owners


Siegel, Marcia B., American Theatre


Puppets and their manipulators share focus at 2nd Henson-sponsored festival

Puppetry is one performance genre that's not yet overexposed. But thanks to the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Jim Henson Foundation, this neglected art form may be starting to get some much-deserved attention. The second International Festival of Puppet Theater presented 140 shows from eight countries for two weeks last fall. Excited audiences packed the Public Theater and P.S. 122, the festival's "fringe" venue. Unlike so many of the entertainment packages we're treated to, this event felt truly festive and eye-opening. Perhaps the best endorsement of the festival's authenticity was the support it got from New York City's nearly invisible subculture of professional puppeteers.

If you think of puppetry as children's entertainment in which dolls come to life, you're only scratching the surface. Transformation, so central to fairy tales and myth, lies at the heart of puppet theatre, where the unreal becomes real, the inanimate animate. But the forms differ sharply in their effect, depending largely on whether the mechanics of the transformation are visible to the audience. In much conventional puppetry, the magic is engineered by hidden movers--string-pullers, hands covered with cloth, orchestrators hidden behind a screen.

Other forms of puppet theatre present both the illusion and the anti-illusion at the same time. In Japanese Bunraku, the puppeteers are not only manipulators but actors, taking on the physical characteristics of their charges. The hooded masters become the puppets' shadows, their slaves. Edgar Bergen was the animator of Charlie McCarthy, but also his partner and straight man as they carried on their verbal scrimmages. The Indonesian Wayang Kulit (shadowplay) invites the audience to visit behind the screen, where the dalang, or puppeteer, sorts through his box of leather characters, improvising for hours on a well-told tale. In all of these forms, the audience assimilates both the puppet-fiction and the technical reality. All the shows I saw in the festival made me think about this real/unreal dialectic, and about the many ways movers and objects can merge.

Maybe the most childlike was Velo Theatre's Envellopes et Deballages. The maitre d' of this one-man show from France, Chariot Lemoine, rules over a personally created domain like a kid with a dollhouse or a train set. He plays a postman with an irresistible curiosity to know what's inside the packages he's delivering. As he pries open the boxes piled on his bicycle, entire cardboard landscapes fold out: a tropical hillside with a smoking volcano, a street of houses along a fishing harbor, a circus complete with high-wire acts. Like his namesake Charlie Chaplin, Lemoine gets completely absorbed in the objects, talking to them, moving them around, making up a surreal story in which a dinosaur sits on an eagle's nest; some archaeologists climb up the mountain to capture the egg and then carry it back by boat to Europe.... The figures are only about three inches high, but Lemoine confides in them, urges them to greater adventures, then fears for their safety. Eventually, they seem to take over the story, while Lemoine recedes into the role of a spectator.

Ketchup and mustard

Velo Theatre is a theatre of objects, a fairly familiar genre in downtown performance art practiced by people like Paul Zaloom. Stuart Sherman, who presented an excerpt from his Queer Spectacle at a series of late-night cabarets at P.S. 122, uses objects to illustrate, obliquely, ideas that might be much more blunt and banal if offered in an ordinary monologue. Like someone demonstrating a potato peeler, Sherman deftly pulls things out of a suitcase and sets them up on a folding table. He shows us two frankfurters. Tears open a small envelope containing a condom. Unrolls the condom over a frank. Squirts the condom full of ketchup from a plastic dispenser. Does the same with the other one, only this time the garnish is mustard.

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