My Thoughts on Performances at the 2009 National Puppet Festival of Puppeteers of America, Inc.

Mallory Lewis and Lambchop

Shari Lewis’s daughter Mallory has revived Lambchop. Working as producer for her mother’s various television efforts and growing up in the household has enabled Mallory to revive Lambchop with much success. The show closed with a video tribute to Shari Lewis. Lambchop like most ventriloqual characters was a personality contained in Shari Lewis, while Mallory came close in recreation some of the tenderness that I associated with Shari’s creation was not there. However, I would rate it at least 95%.

On another level puppet festivals are a time of meeting and sharing. I remember festivals where you could meet Jim Henson, Burr Tilstrom, Bil Baird, even Sergi Obratsov who stayed for the week and were accessible. Mallory is one of two performers who “graced the stage” at this festival, but apparently felt no comradery for the community.

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As I Lay Dying [adapted from William Faulkner’s novel] by the Haverty Marionettes

This was a full stage production with a large backdrop reminiscent of a circus wagon with cameo bass-reliefs which were either animated or opened up to reveal puppets or shadows and a “small” marionette proscenium in the center. The puppets were of a consistent, crude folk-art style that kept all elements of the staging well executed. A lot of thought was given to the live music and vintage recording which were again very consistent in execution.

The problem with the production lies in trying to emulate a Faulkner constantly changing point-of-view that works well in print. That did not translate well in this adaptation. This piece probably worked well for those familiar with the novel, but seemed inconsistent and confusing to those unfamiliar with the novel.

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The Box? A show of Feelings by Coad Canada Puppets

Luman and his late wife have long been favorites of Puppeteers of America. This was a non-verbal piece about a boy and a box and a dog and a box, and their various reactions to the box. I personally tend to find non-verbal pieces tedious and this is one such case. The audience as a whole responded quite well to the piece.

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Alonzo’s Lullaby and Danny the Diver by Nana Projects

Using a battery of three overhead projectors and various magic lantern techniques, the techniques were fantastic although there were occasional mis-alignments. Again theses were non-verbal shows. Danny the Diver was based on an unpublished 1930’s comic strip and the show likewise could have remained unpublished. Alonzo’s Lullaby was about the disastrous train wreck involving engineer Alonzo who fell asleep at the wheel. The piece concentrated on circus performers and scenes, they did not convey much of a story only disjointed moods.

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The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf by the Paul Mesner Puppets

This was a clever story and well executed by a great entertainer. While manipulation of the rod puppets often amounted to “shaking a dolly on a stick,” Paul’s speed, timing, and quick wit took you away from that. It was most enjoyable performance.

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Panther and Crane by IBEX Puppetry

This is the third incarnation of the show that I have seen. It is much better than the previous two. Designed by Heather Henson the show features live performers on stage operating a few puppets and waving banners and whirligigs. Heather is to be commended for breaking away from the family puppet heritage, but still needs to find herself. The show as first presented contained abstractions that were confusing and mixed in with realism in some aspects. In this production Heather has been more uniform in her abstractions. In addition she has added a little monologue to make the story more comprehendible. However, she still has a very long way to go with the piece.

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Cinderella in Muddy York by Puppetmongers Theatre

This was a very interesting retelling of the Cinderella story set in 1834 York (now Toronto), Canada. The two puppeteers often blend in as characters and otherwise operate Sicilian style marionettes on tables and chairs that are part of the set. While not “great” puppetry, the show is very engaging, and entertaining in its style and presentation.

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The Rainbow Bridge and Other Tales by Hobey Ford’s Goldenrod Puppets

Hobey is unusual in that he operates from a circular shadow stage rather than the traditional rectangular one. He draws from various native American legends in addition to standard fairy tales. His execution is quite good, but never memorable. He finishes the show operating sculpted foam rod puppets mid-air across the stage without any particular rhyme or reason.

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El Hombre Ciguena (The Stork Man) by Los Titiriteros de Binefar

This couple from Spain have performed twice before at National Festivals. The first production “The Fable of the Fox” which I found a little tedious made many festival goers cry in its presentation. There second offering involved life in a Gypsy camp which drew considerably less praise. This offering should be right up my alley in their use of “junk” to create puppet characters. It carried the same theme as “The Panther and Crane” but was a little more comprehensible. The actors occasionally spoke Spanish but essentially the piece was non-verbal. Again I tend to find non-verbal pieces to be tedious, and so it was at times. It was also a shame that the tech crew tried to give special mood lighting which often left the puppets in the dark and the puppeteer well lit. They would have benefitted with a more generic general lighting.

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Poli Dagaine (Punchy Draw) by Compagnie La Pendue

A French couple presented their version of a Polichinelle (French Punch and Judy) in a traditional booth. It was quite different from the traditional. The fact that it was all French dialogue, and Punch and Judy left me unimpressed.

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The Day it Snowed Tortillas by the Crabgrass Puppet Theatre

Well executed, visually appealing, and a clever story; but for some reason left me unimpressed.

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An Evening with John Tartaglia

It was an interesting interview with a Broadway and TV performer and some interesting behind the scenes video, but somewhat disappointing as a ‘featured performance.”

On another level puppet festivals are a time of meeting and sharing. I remember festivals where you could meet Jim Henson, Burr Tilstrom, Bil Baird, even Sergi Obratsov who stayed for the week and were accessible. John is one of two performers who “graced the stage” at this festival, but apparently felt no comradery for the community.

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La Muela del Rey Farfan (The Toothache of King Farfan) by Teatro SEA

An interesting production featuring the full body puppets and “readers” to the side of the stage providing voices for the puppets. This production was a 19th Century operetta and presented as a bilingual Spanish/English piece. It suffered from two problems. The first was almost everything happened in the same set with a lack of action, almost a “talking heads” piece. The second was all the stage cast was Puerto Rican, or Central and South American to whom English did not seem to be their primary language. From what experience I have had with foreign languages, much effort is made to speak the language with the correct accent. However, the “readers” spoke English often with Spanish accents so heavy you were often not sure whether they were doing the English portion or Spanish portion. [I know, English accent . . . I can recognize four regional accents in Missouri alone.] I was disappointed in not being able to understand most of what was being said in the production.

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The Little Pirate Mermaid by the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Jon Ludwig and Jason von Hinezmeyer

The joy of a home theater! The staging was superb and could only be economically afforded in a home theater (as opposed to a touring theater). The story interesting and fast paced as needed for children. There was a tendency at times for a butt walk by the puppets but overall the manipulation was good. The post show explanation/demonstration was unusually quick, rehearsed, and concise, especially the “hand-off” to the next puppeteer in the post-show. I have been fortunate enough to see two touring shows of Bil Baird’s. This compared very favorably to my memories of the Baird shows.

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Secret History Remembers by Evolve Company

This was an attempt of surrealism and nostalgia. It was a long journey to nowhere.

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Entertaining a Thought by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph

Leslie is a very talented lady. Various puppets sang live to a piano accompaniment to a variety of songs about coming to terms with ideas and feelings. While a more formal set would have helped, the performance otherwise needed no help and was a bright spot in the festival.

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Bride by Kevin Augustine’s Lone Wolf Tribe.

It was very tedious and nearly incomprehensible. An interesting program note was all the rave reviews by New York publications promoting theatre entertainment. While they quoted one rave revue, from NYTheatre.com “monumental, epic, and audacious.” They omitted the next line “It is imperfect, as all great art necessarily is;” [www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/showpage.php?t=brid6398 which also has a story synopsis.] That is an interesting line by an arts reviewer, I always thought great art was perfection. I guess bad art always contains perfection? A better more accurate revue can be found at theater2.nytimes.com/2008/03/19/theater/reviews/19brid.html. Where does a production like this play get presented? Apparently it only had a brief run a PS122 [Performing Space 122 ]. The story in brief is god the father tires of listening to an overloaded switchboard of calls for guidance and assistance, decides to create a man/son and it does not work out. The man/son is destroyed by the world. God the father is lost and the great goddess who had been dismantled/dismembered reassembles herself as god the father tries to prevent it, and god the father reconciles and goes to sleep, contented, in her lap. Many festival goers thought all the blood, bones, and gore had something to do with abortion. It was far from a highlight of the festival.

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