Puppets in Review- Dramaton Theater

Jane Catherine Shaw, The Elementals, Grethen Van Lente, Nick Jones, Basil Twist, Dramaton Theater

• Bed of Light
• A Children’s Show That No Network Has The Guts To Pick Up
• Sid and Nancy Punch and Judy Show
• Car Accident
• Stickman
• The Life in a Night Of…

HERE, New York, NY
December 13, 1999

review by Donald Devet

The evening’s fare was book ended with dream related sketches.

Even though the “Symphonie Fantastique” aquarium has been drained and the fabric and feathers packed away, puppets continue to gallivant across the stage at HERE. The latest Puppet Parlor revue, an ongoing series by Dream Music devoted to presenting the new as well as the tried and true, featured six diverse pieces with a wide range in mood and quality.

The evening’s fare was bookended with dream related sketches– Jane Catherine Shaw’s “Bed of Light” and Dramaton Theater’s “The Life in a Night Of…” Shaw’s serious piece explored the theme of recurring dreams. She manipulated a beautifully carved wooden figure built by Walter Stark, to a taped monologue of a female voice quietly baring her soul. Simply staged shadow scenes enhanced the trancelike mood.

Shaw’s work (“The Lone Runner,” “Nostradamus Speaks!”) has always demanded careful attention from the audience. She leads us into unknown territory, then leaves it up to us to figure out how to navigate. This piece, though still in a workshop stage of development, was no exception. It’s always a treat to be challenged by Shaw’s inventive mind.

The last piece of the night, by Dramaton Theater, turned out to be a nightmare for both audience and performers. A cabaret-style marionette character went into a fitful sleep after swatting at a swarm of flies and switching off his bare light bulb. The walls of his sparse room were transformed into a movie screen. A flickering Super 8 film threaded its way through a hungry projector intent on devouring the film. In a few minutes the film went off track leaving the audience in the dark.

Intent on salvaging the scene, Ken Berman, Lend Forbes, and Sean Stoops valiantly hustled to rethread the projector. But it was not meant to be. Whatever they were trying to say with this piece was overshadowed by faulty technology– a pity, since they had traveled from Philadelphia just for this event.

In between the dream and the nightmare, The Elementals (James Godwin and John Javlik) made us laugh with “A Children’s Show That No Network Has The Guts To Pick Up.” The sardonic host of this demented kiddie show, a tabletop style rod puppet, looked and sounded like Tom Waits. He blew smoke rings, flexed his eyebrows and removed his jaunty fedora to reveal a partially exposed brain. The Elementals style of performance as seen here and in their most recent full-length show, “Bunkbed Commando,”is similar in style, pretending to be off the cuff but executed with absolute precision– something like a rehearsed ad lib. These guys are pure raw spirit.

Next up, Grethen Van Lente’s “Sid and Nancy Punch and Judy Show” was a quick take on Sid Vicious and Nancy’s tragic and often nasty relationship with drugs done in a Punch and Judy motif.

Punch and Judy have been used to satirize and poke fun at cultures across the centuries. But casting Sid and Nancy in these roles was an uneasy fit. Purposely performed in a crude refrigerator box, the send-up was little more than predictable. Van Lente, who alternated between canned dialog and live vocals, couldn’t quite get a handle on the black humor. In the end, Sid and Nancy, alias Punch and Judy, are cardboard characters in Van Lente’s hands.

“Car Accident” by Nick Jones was a last-minute substitute for “The Don Gato’s,” a no-show. Jones’s piece, which merely grossed us out with fake blood squirting from a puppet, was definitely the nadir of the evening.

Just as things were going downhill, Basil Twist, the MC, performed “Stickman,” a stylized cabaret marionette he created at the Institut Internationale de la Marionette in Charleville-Mezieres, France. Gracefully manipulated to Ella Fitzgerald’s full rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Twist proved his deft mastery of motion and mood. It was as if we were watching a puppet moving in liquid, a medium Twist is very familiar with.

The Puppet Parlor series is full of promise but seems to fall short in sustaining a consistent level of quality. Since HERE has a reputation as the place to see puppets, thanks to the astounding success of “Symphonie Fantastique,” Barbara Busackino and Basil Twist have a responsibility to present puppetry that will satisfy the public’s higher expectations. Let’s hope the next Puppet Parlor in February will live up to that.

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