Puppets in Review- The Mystery of Lawrence Castle

Toni Schlessinger, Lake Simons, Christopher Williams, David Colon, Basil Twist- Puppet Parlor

• The Mystery of Lawrence Castle
• What’s Inside the Egg (excerpt)
• Vulpes Ferox (excerpt)
• Glamamora
• Umbrellas of Cherbourg

New York, NY
April 16, 2002

review by Donald Devet

The Puppet Parlor bill will often include a first look at emerging productions and excerpts from larger works.

Chis Williams

Now’s an excellent time to be a puppeteer in New York City. There are a number of venues all over town in which to showcase a work-in- progress or to premiere a short piece you’re dying for everyone to see: Great Small Works hosts the Spaghetti Supper at P.S.122 on the lower East Side. Jane Henson invites performers onstage at PaTCH (Puppets at The Carriage House) on the upper East Side. Deb Hertzberg has launched Cat’s Paw Cabaret near the theater district. And in Brooklyn, you can show off your stuff at Puppetheque run by Puppetworks.

But one of the granddaddies of these venues is the highly respected Puppet Parlor, part of the Dream Music Puppetry Program at the Dorothy B. Williams Theatre at HERE located on the edge of SoHo. As curator of the Dream Music Puppetry Program, Basil Twist keeps a keen eye on what’s cooking in the puppetry community. The Puppet Parlor bill will often include a first look at emerging productions and excerpts from larger works. Along with Barbara Busachino, Twist fosters and inspires puppet artists to experiment and reach higher.

Even though five short acts do not quite make a full evening of puppetry, what the program lacked in quantity it certainly made up for in quality. Toni Schlessinger performed “The Mystery of Lawrence Castle” with able assistance from Erin Eager and Carol Binion. Staged in a toy theater, this clever skit spoofed the black and white private detective films of the 40’s. Performed with deadpan seriousness which is the key to making a spoof truly funny, Binion provided narration and occasional aside comments as Schlessinger and Eager manipulated flat cardboard shoes mounted on rods. The shoes represented all the characters including Lawrence Castle himself- a two-toned wing tip.

The story is simple. A woman falls head over heels in love with Lawrence Castle who then mysteriously disappears. The forlorn dame spends the rest of her life traversing the globe looking for this elusive lover. Schlessinger doesn’t miss a trick in constructing this tongue-in-cheek story. The puppets and the puppeteers’ costumes are done in varying shades of black, white and grays. The restrained dialog and movements only heighten the comedic effect. The shoe motif carries over even in the design of set pieces- a plane’s propellers are whirling wing tips. (Get it?) Best of all is the wonderful use of scale. Shoes grow large as if a camera were zooming in for a close-up. The mysterious Mr. Castle finally reappears as a gigantic shoe looming over the set. This skit is a real kick.

The next performance featured Lake Simons with a rod puppet called “Louise” on a tabletop set complete with working swing, budding flowers, and a tiny mirror. Simons showed her ability to hold attention through her expert manipulation in this slice of a larger work-in-progress, “What’s Inside the Egg.” This wordless skit is a character study of “Louise” who appears to be a happy woman, proud of her bosomy figure and chicken claw-like feet. She contentedly swings and waters her plants. Only when she confronts her image in a mirror does self-doubt creep in. The skit seemed to lack a satisfying ending, but since it is only a piece of a whole it’s hard to judge.

Christopher Williams is a dancer who knows how to use puppets. His skit from a larger work (“Vulpes Ferox”) took four puppeteers to bring to life. Williams, costumed as an albino frog, hops on stage dragging a mysterious wooden crate which he protectively guards. When he falls asleep, a beautiful fairy-like creature, the frog’s alter ego, emerges from the box. This exquisite rod puppet has one of the most expressive faces I’ve seen in a long time. Reminiscent of Bruce Schwartz’s puppets but on a larger scale, this mesmerizing character’s movements were fluidly accomplished by the coordination of Twist, Binion, Eager, and Simons. A baby is also part of the equation. The fairy-like creature tenderly lifts a child from the box and together they escape. The frog awakens to find he has been abandoned. If this piece is any indication of what to expect from “Vulpes Ferox,” I’ll be the first in line for tickets.

David Colon’s “Glamamora” is set to music and the wailing sounds of a woman in anguish. Colon, with heavy eye make-up and a shaved head, is dressed in a long black skirt. After we watch him for a few moments preparing for some sort of ritual, it becomes evident that we are witnessing a self-inflicted abortion performed with a coat hanger. This act is portrayed graphically but not for shock value. Colon spends some time caressing an egg, the unexpected issue of the abortion. Then with much reservation, Colon smashes the egg with a hammer. Even though this skit was operatic and a bit over the top it was impossible not to feel the heartbreak of a woman driven to such an extreme act.

The evening was capped off with two sock puppets, literally socks, lip-synching to a recording of “I Will Wait for You” sung in French, from the 1964 movie, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” “Ho hum,” you might say. But with the right hands in those socks, you’ve got something special. The hands, in this case, belong to Basil Twist.

Twist’s distinguished career has certainly taken him well beyond sock puppets, so it’s always fascinating to see a gifted artist return to the rudiments of puppetry and show how something so simple can still be magical. The sock characters, minimally costumed, were all mouths and no eyes. The man and woman romanced each other and then consummated their love by discarding not only their clothes, but also their very skins- the socks. During the last few notes of the song Twist’s bare hands intertwine, signaling a happy ending for the lovers and a happy ending to another successful Puppet Parlor.

Basil Twist

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