HERE New York, NY
March 19, 2003
review by Donald Devet
“What’s Inside the Egg?” is rich with symbolism and layers of meaning.
Has a new day dawned for puppetry? With “Avenue Q ” on Broadway, “Little Shop of Horrors” in revival and “Lion King” looking like it will run forever, the probability of puppets as serious box office has sharply increased. We’re not talking kids’ stuff here. These shows are aimed squarely at adults with deep pockets; a good seat to a Broadway musical these days can set you back $100. Maybe the reality of puppets as commercially viable is exactly what needed to happen to give the art of puppetry a little respect.
But just because a few shows featuring puppets land on Broadway doesn’t mean they’re the best of what puppetry has to offer. Look around. Plenty of wonderful works are being produced all across the country that will never make it to the Great White Way, and yet are they making significant progress in changing the age old misconception that puppets are only for kids.
Look no further than New York City and to puppet artist, Lake Simons, to know what I’m talking about. Her first full length show, “What’s Inside the Egg?” is a gentle, thoughtful exploration of adult themes. Professionally mounted, this show is an excellent example of an emerging artist in control of her craft. A telltale sign of her professionalism is exemplified by Ms. Simons’ faith in her audience. Although always in control of imagery and timing, she is wise enough to leave room for the audience to use their imaginations to make her story meaningful to them.
Learning to trust your audience doesn’t happened overnight. Thirty year old Ms. Simons comes from a theatrical family; her father is a writer, mime, director; and her mother is a costumer in Ft. Worth, Texas (Hip Pocket Theatre) where Ms. Simons first performed at age 4. At first she thought she wanted to be an actor. She left Texas to study theater in France at Ecole International de Theatre Jacques Lecoq. But then she gravitated more towards scenic design as a practical way of earning a living and ended up earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in scenic design from North Carolina School of the Arts. But the lure of acting was too strong and she returned to the stage, this time with puppets in hand.
Puppets have always been a part of Ms. Simons’s life. Her parents incorporated puppets into their shows and as a child she loved playing with her collection of small objects that were carefully housed in a special sewing basket, She spent hours taking them out one by one and inventing stories to go along. Ms. Simons recalls, “I wanted to fit into that small box and live with all my precious treasures and remain there.” In a way, she has fulfilled her wish. “What’s Inside the Egg?” takes us inside a private place where fantasy and reality interweave in unexpected ways. Since the title of the show is a question, the audience expects to be given an answer. Ms. Simons makes viewers work for it. And there turns out to be more than one answer.
Ms. Simons as “Louise” and Harold Lehmann as “Happy” are an elderly couple set in their ways with little or no disruption in their daily routine. Performed in white face with white costumes, their characters communicate to us only through gesture. Ms. Simons is an expert mime, a gift she may have inherited from her father. Never breaking character even when leaving the stage to fetch a prop, Ms. Simons’s intense concentration is one of the keys that make this play work so well.
A young actor playing “old” is tricky business– caricature is the easy way out–but Ms. Simons has done her homework, first by studying old people on the streets of New York and then by relating the character of “Louise” to her grandmother. Ms Simons: “It was my way of trying to understand her. She’s in her mid 80’s. I wanted her to feel great about where she is in her life. Her husband died 10 years ago. She had a similar relationship to him as in my story. They were very close. If he had lived, they would have been just like ‘Louise’ and ‘Happy.’ They would have had no need for conversation at that point in their lives.”
Electing to play “Louise” meant that Ms. Simons would not be manipulating the puppets she had spent weeks building and costuming: “I missed not being able to manipulate my own puppets. But it’s really cool to see them being worked by others. In someone else’s hands they do things totally different. It’s magical.”
Open staging was another decision made early on: “It’s okay seeing puppeteers as long as they aren’t clumsy. And because we were going to see the puppeteers, I wanted to make something of it. I wanted them to be characters–to be manipulative of space as well as of the puppets. They were there but I never interacted with them, never looked at them. I wanted the piece to be dynamic and not restricted to certain areas–to be wherever they needed to be.”
Two of the principal puppet characters (marionettes) are also a married couple, except they’re chickens. Ms. Simons explains: “The chicken couple are a powerful force and they recognize something in “Louise”–the love she has for creatures. At the beginning I wasn’t sure whose story this was. The old man’s, the old woman’s? I wasn’t sure of the balance. The chicken characters are juxtaposed to the old couple. That’s what I find intriguing–other lives happening. While we’re talking, there’s all kinds of little things happening around us. A fantasy, imaginary world. A lot of which we don’t know. We are involved in our lives and there’s possibly other lives happening around us. It’s just like in nature. There’s a tree with bugs and birds, all working on their own little lives. There’s no awareness of all the other lives around them. The old versus the young. Starting a life, ending a life. Why were the chicken couple choosing to come into Louise’s life? To show her passion and love.”
There’s another important puppet character in this piece who acts as Louise’s alter ego, telling her what to do, going inside the old woman’s head. It’s a bird (marionette) created to show how the old woman gets ideas. When a chick that Louise has been caring for dies, it’s Louise’s first contact with death. It’s also the first time we encounter this character who represents Louise’s subconscious. Ms. Simons: “It’s a whole other time for Louise– another world. A door to another time. The bird marionette takes the dead bird, showing Louise that it’s time to give that up, to let go. This is a turning point for Louise who must make a decision. She decides to live. She regains control of her life. She’s then able to go into the next phase. But this isn’t necessarily what I wanted the audience to understand.”
“What’s Inside the Egg?” is rich with symbolism and layers of meaning. Even though Ms. Simons has a fixed idea of what she was trying to communicate, there is still room for various interpretations. Because she’s allowed her audience to meet her halfway, Ms. Simons has invited us to claim partial ownership. Even with the musicians and puppeteers, Ms. Simons has made this production a cooperative venture. And along the way she’s learned a few things: “I learned the fear of not knowing what exactly is going to happen. It’s so scary. But when you have people you can trust, you know it will end up being so much fuller than anything you could have ever done alone. It can occur, if you allow it to happen, if you don’t have too much of a handle on it. I was very much in control but at the same time I was okay with opinions and suggestions and letting the puppeteers and performers feel comfortable with giving suggestions. I listened.”
With “What’s Inside the Egg?,” Ms. Simons has come out of her shell in a big way. For several years she was in the shadows, a supporting puppeteer for Basil Twist and other New York companies who were staging their own full length shows. Now that she’s gotten over the hurdle of her own first big show, what advice would she have to those puppeteers wanting to get to the next level? Ms. Simons: “Do your own work whenever you can. I know a lot of people who are like -– ‘Well I’m working on something but I just can’t show it yet, it’s not ready.’ You just have to make a date and do it.”
That kind of attitude, the willingness to take a chance and not be afraid of failing, is what will keep Lake Simons and others like her in the vanguard of the ongoing struggle to make puppetry come into its own in the 21st Century.