Jim Bowen- Tarr and Fether Puppets- The Firebird

October 5, 1999
at Puppetworks Theater
New York, NY

Staged with marionettes and a smattering of shadows, Jim Bowen’s vision of the Igor Stravinsky abridged ballet score is ambitious, possibly overly ambitious.

review by Donald Devet

Some shows are born prematurely. Tarr and Fether Puppets’ production of The Firebird is a good example. Like a fledgling bird pecking its way out of its shell, this production is full of youthful energy but lacks sufficient grace.

Staged with marionettes and a smattering of shadows, Jim Bowen’s vision of the Igor Stravinsky abridged ballet score is ambitious, possibly overly ambitious. Bowen originally intended the show as a solo performance. But as he worked on the puppets, he realized he was going to need help. J. Max Sullivan assists Bowen in the manipulation department. But Bowen has chosen to handle all the other chores– designing, building, directing– by himself.

A bare bones stage with minimal scenery focuses all attention on the puppets; there is nothing else to look at. Bowen’s design style is semi-abstract. His carved creations are strangely proportioned with geometric shapes suggesting hands, feet, wings. In an odd way, the crudeness works. Exposed eye screws and joints give the puppets a homespun quality. Even glimpses of an occasional hand manning the controls remind the audience of the omniscient puppeteers. The best puppet is the villain- the evil wizard, Katchei, with his serpentine body and red jeweled eyes. However, manipulation wavers between poetic and out and out clunky.

Watching this forty minute production, I was immediately taken back to when I was a teenager performing my first puppet shows. Nothing was more fun than making marionettes fly through the air or engage in battle to the rhythms of exciting orchestral music. When I was sixteen I thought good puppetry meant action. The more the puppets were hopping around and banging into each other, the better the show. Through experience and the advice of seasoned puppeteers I learned that there was more to puppets than jiggling them to music and making them fall down a lot.

Even though The Firebird is designed for adults, Bowen does not trust his audience to follow the story. He peppers the show with live narration that does little more than turn the event into a “show and tell.” Since a detailed synopsis of the story was printed in the program, narration was redundant. Bowen’s love of Stravinsky’s music and his enthusiasm for puppetry have driven him to give birth to a gangling, awkward bird. In time, with proper nurturing Bowen’s baby will someday soar.

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