I'm your puppet: Houston arts groups pull some strings to create magic andillusion
She could tap dance, effortlessly land in a perfect split, then buoyantly spring some seven feet in the air for a little breast stroke, as if made of nothing more than thread. Did I mention her sky-high extensions?
So, the dancer in question is in fact made of cloth, designed by legendary puppeteer Basil Twist, and deftly manipulated by the astute dancers of Jane Comfort and Company in her Bessie Award-winning piece Underground River, recently performed at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. The dance explores the life force of a young girl in a coma. Somehow, this tiny surrogate gives us a glimpse into the unknowable territory of the unconscious. It's eerie and uplifting, qualities not usually found on the same stage. Puppets are like that. They are both of and not of this world, connected to and separate from those who bestow them life.
Somehow, this tiny surrogate gives us a glimpse into the unknowable territory of the unconscious. It's eerie and uplifting, qualities not usually found on the same stage. Puppets are like that. They are both of and not of this world, connected to and separate from those who bestow them life.
A little closer to home, Paedarchy Puppets and Camella Clements present Fantasies of Stabbing Edison in the Neck: A Nikola Tesla Puppet ShowFriday night at 14 Pews. As a Tesla freak myself (he did his alternating current thing right in my hometown of Buffalo), I can imagine these handmade actors are perfectly cast to reveal the dark side of light.
I've been creeped out by puppets ever since Pinocchio turned into a donkey in Disney's 1940 film. Still, I get excited when a sub-human presence enters the stage. By some strange suspension of disbelief, puppeteers have the power to make their own bodies invisible, directing our attention to what would be a lifeless object without them. It's animation at its deepest level, with various layers of scaffolding visible, depending on the type of puppet.
Twist, a household name in theater circles, is fluent in many styles of puppetry, much of which has been seen in Houston. Houston Grand Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel featured the then HGO Studio artist Liam Bonner stuck inside Twist's gigantic machine puppet. When Society for the Performing Arts brought in the Joe Goode Performance Group, a non-human dancer mesmerized us in Wonderboy. The last time Pilobolus popped in for their acro-candy style of dance making, they showed off Twist's finesse with shadows in Darkness and Light, also on the SPA stage. I just recently watched a DVD of Twist's Petrushka, enormously weird and entertaining.
It's been a summer of puppets for me, first with Underground River, followed by Kidd Pivot in Crystal Pite's Dark Matters, a sinister and captivating investigation into the creation myth. Maybe you caught Joey Fauerso's subversive Me Time at Box 13 ArtSpace, where the artist makes out with a policeman, a firefighter and construction worker puppets. Awkard and hilarious. "The object of my affection is literally an extension and projection of self, reflecting many of the highly narcissistic romantic descriptions of erotic love," writes Fauerso in her artist statement.
We can't talk about puppets in Houston without mentioning Bobbindoctrin. "I think they're from Eastern Europe," I told Sixto Wagan, leaving DiverseWorks after theirproduction based on Tolstoy's Ivan the Foolseveral years back. "No they're not," replied Wagan. "I work here; they're from Houston."
I guess that's how alien puppets feel to me. Bobbindoctrin founder Joel Orr has a show coming up at 14 Pews in November, in addition to his annual festival next spring. 14 Pews' Artistic Director Cressandra Thibodeaux is also making a film about Orr (and others), aptly titled, Puppet Doc.
Houston has a burst of puppet action coming down the pike. Bobbindoctrin veterans Mike and Kelly Switzer's Bedtime Stories headlines FrenetiCore's Houston Fringe Festival, Aug. 12-14, at Super Happy Fun Land. Mike is a former member of the Puppet Liberation Front and Kelly is an Assistant Professor of drama at University of Houston-Downtown.
"Bedtime Stories is a written/salvaged/compiled piece. I see the script as a chance to hear some snippets of my favorite conspiracy theory literature spoken through the mouth of a puppet," says Mike. "Kelly has made very traditional looking 'kids show' kind of puppets, so having this weird stuff come out of the father’s mouth adds a kind of poetry to it."
"Puppetry forces a little alienation on the audience, analyzing what they are seeing and feeling rather than being swept up in the moment."
BooTown goes to puppet town this fall with a pair of shows. "A Bloody Puppet Show is based on the Sally Jessy Rafael episode with metal band GWAR as the musical guest, only we are definitely deviating from history," says Emily Hynds, BooTown's Artistic Director. "A Sandbox Love Story follows, which is about two kids who like each other but don't know how to express it, playground style. We're talking hair pulling and sand-castle-push-overing."
Hynds has also enlisted Clements' assistance for both of these projects. "I've helped to conceptualize puppet designs that reflect what the puppets actually need to be able to do," says Clements, whose play, Beast Baby Hospital, was a standout at the most recent Bobbindoctrin Festival.
Clements has some serious puppet connections. Her husband, Kevin Taylor, has been working with Twist for a decade. The couple met while Taylor was working on HGO's Hansel and Gretel. (Lots of puppet roads lead to Twist, some to marriage.) Both Clements and Taylor have new fall shows in the works.
I haven't seen the five Tony Award-winning play War Horseat Lincoln Center, but it's on my must-see list. Handspring Puppet artists Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are the masterminds behind Joey, the War Horse. Kohler gets it right in his Ted Talk, when he says, "Puppets have to try to be alive." No one understood that more than the late Muppet master Jim Henson. Next time I'm in New York a visit to the Museum of Moving Image to see "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" is in order.
Until then, I'll hole up with The Dark Crystalknowing full well that Houston is one happening puppet place.
The little humanoid can dance in Jane Comfort's Bessie Award-winning Underground River
Crystal Pite of Kidd Pivot takes puppets to new heights of beauty and weirdness in Dark Matters