The Life and Death of Puppets

By Blumenthal, Eileen | American Theatre, January 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Life and Death of Puppets

Blumenthal, Eileen, American Theatre

Live actors, to be sure possess certain natural advantages over puppets - their operating mechanisms are self-contained, and they can endow characters with the complexity of real human form. These assets are nothing to sneeze at. Still, human actors remain inherently limited. They come in a paltry range of sizes and shapes. They can endure only modest physical action without sustaining unacceptable damage. And the performing artist and the character, using the same body, inevitably get all tangled together.

No wonder so much of the world's most exciting theatre has been realized by created actors - that is, by puppets. True, created-actor theatre has been marginalized in modern Western arts, largely as a side-effect of the century-long pandemic of realism. Flat-out replication of living models is one of the few stage styles at which puppets do not excel. As realism became the favored aesthetic here for "serious" drama, puppets were largely relegated to shows for children.

But first-class created-actor art continues to thrive in other cultures, and it has maintained an underground vitality here. For several decades, individual artists have explored the possibilities of non-DNA casts. In retrospect, the roster of these lone rangers of puppetry seems like a movement - a steady progression, like Manifest Destiny, to populate the Western stage. The late Robert Anton treated invited audiences to visions of whole societies he conjured on his fingertips. Bruce Schwartz fashioned intricate mannequins and brought them to life with exquisite delicacy on table-top stages. The late Charles Ludlam used his bad-ass dummy Walter Ego to transgress the boundaries of theatre, taste and metaphysics. Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater has turned "naively" painted sheets and "rough" sculptures into statements of social protest and religious faith. Julie Taymor has used wood, silk, Celastic, shadow and light to populate worlds as often apocalyptic as enchanting.

A high-wire act

And Jim Henson's muppetry has introduced at least two generations to the art of crafted creatures. Over the years, the Henson Foundation has also nurtured created-actor theatre by recycling some of Kermit's TV paychecks into support for other puppeteers. This fall, for the third time, the Foundation's New York-based International Festival of Puppet Theater (curated by Leslee Asch and Cheryl Henson) brought some of the best contemporary created-actor work into mainstream view at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the New Victory, Dance Theater Workshop and P.S. 122.

A fundamental pleasure of all theatre involves balancing two realities. Spectators accept the stage action as real but never totally forget that they're watching people pretending. In puppetry, this suspension of disbelief becomes a high-wire act as the chasm separating the two simultaneously believed realities becomes stupendous. How amazing it is - as in the Czech artists Frantisek and Vera's Festival performance, Piskanderdula - to wince with horror as a young lover is run through by a brigand, when you can see perfectly well that the "people" you're feeling for are foot-high wooden effigies.

Since so much of the power and fun of puppetry lies in its audacity, artists often flaunt the unreality of what they're inducing you to believe. In Japanese Bunraku, for example, four-foot-high characters share the stage with a platoon of outscale (human-size) handlers dressed in black. Most of the Third International Festival's offerings similarly featured puppeteers in full view.

Many raised the challenge even higher, daring spectators to believe in absurd realities. The Mexican Teatro Tinglado's psychopathic Punch show tops a voluptuous, bare-breasted female puppet-body with the head of a balding, bearded actor; when the same buxom hussy later appears as a hand puppet, her head is a miniature of the actor's, beard and all. The Czech Forman Brothers's loony Baroque Opera ends with all the puppet characters taking curtain calls, including chickens and a chimney.

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