Puppetry From There to HERE (2nd Annual Showcase)

Created and performed by artists of The Eugene O’Neill National Puppetry Conference

New York, NY
January 16, 2000

review by Donald Devet

The dozen sketches are diverse in theme and tone but consistent in quality.

What do a Sumo wrestler, an office supervisor and a slumbering giant have in common? They are all characters in new works created and performed by artists from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Puppetry Conference held in the summer of 1999. The dozen sketches are diverse in theme and tone but consistent in quality. Here’s a brief description of the acts in order of appearance:

Wendy Morton’s “Portals” was a dreamlike shadow play exploring human relationships. A ceiling to floor crinkly screen of IMAX proportions was the perfect canvas for Morton’s haunting visions. Live music and vocals enhanced the experience. The only jarring image was a character’s head hinged at the back of the neck, opening like a Pez dispenser to allow his heart to be extracted. Just didn’t seem right.

Next up was Ceili Clemens’ “The Tragic Tale of the Tungsten Triplets,” a poem relying heavily on puns for its humor. The table top performance did little more than illustrate the poem. Only when the triplets split apart did the puppetry seem justified. The triplets now “rest in pieces.”

“Three Strong Women” was a joy to watch. Jim Napolitano who could easily be mistaken for a wrestler himself, has created a story that takes its time and is full of little surprises. Worked table top, the Sumo wrestler and the women he meets were cleanly manipulated with a minimum of vocalization. In one humorous encounter after another, the wrestler learned not only strength of body but also strength of mind.

Richard Termine has designed a full length show, “Diary of a Madman,” of which an excerpt was presented. The piece was beautifully staged with exquisite miniature furniture and simulated oil lamp lighting. Daniel Fergus Tamulonis’ depiction of Nikolai Gogal’s character, whose delusions of grandeur include imagining he is the King of Spain, was intense. Maybe too intense. The tension never let up. Tamulonis started on a high note and had nowhere to climb.

“Subway Symphony” by Gretchen Van Lente and Lisa Abbatomarco was a funny and noisy look at a typical ride on a New York subway. The two women used cardboard figures and a continuous barrage of voices, screeches and incoherent announcements which sounded cacophonous rather than symphonic. Clever, witty and satirical, ‘Subway Symphony” struck home.

Bobbie Nidzgorski is usually behind the scenes composing original music and organizing events. So it was a pleasure to see her center stage performing “The Fish,” a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. This time a poem was well served by the puppetry. The fish, veteran of many a catch, was given a reprieve. Its wide mouth opening and closing, gasping for life, was a memorable image.The fish seemed to be saying, “All I want is one more chance.”

More dance than puppetry, “Grasslands Chant” by Flock Theatre was a visual delight of evocative masks, waving pampas grass and graceful cranes all moving to ethereal music.

Ever since Lieble Wetzel did some work on her sink, she has let PVC go to her head. “Re-Membering” was a playful exercise using only five short lengths of common PVC pipe and three performers. Puppeteers who think they need oodles of expensive materials to create puppets should see this imaginative piece and take notes. Less is absolutely more. Maybe we should all spend more time repairing our sinks.

Ron Binion’s “Open Door Policy” was also a lesson in minimalism. Focusing on a single premise– an employee is promoted to an administrative position for which he is totally ill suited– Binion showed a supervisor isolated in his office with little or nothing to do. The non-verbal skit is a classic. Binion took his time, letting us observe every nuance of movement. The supervisor was bored, literally to death. His demise was funny and poignant, and Binion was able to run the gamut of emotions without breaking into a sweat.

Carol Binion stole the show in Emily Cameron Wilson’s “Frida’s Lunch.” Frida is tempted to abandon her diet in favor of all kinds of sinful treats. Binion brought glorious life to a “Devil ” hand puppet whose rapid fire high pitched gibberish is both incomprehensible and fully understood. In the end Frida held out and gave the Devil his due.

Heather Henson’s “Deerbourne” was magical. Her movements reflected her study of dance and her background in puppetry. A luminescent flower’s petals opened to reveal a deer-like creature. The creature stood on its delicate hind legs to reveal a human face on its underbelly. Strange and beautiful at the same time.

The event ended with “The Sleeper,” a piece from “The Reality Denunciation Show” by Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theater. In this restaged performance by John Bell, a giant of a man appears in pieces that are assembled into a stage length character in repose. The choreography of thirteen puppeteers moving cardboard body parts into place was like the movement of pieces of a puzzle. Only in the end did the picture make sense.

Celebrating its tenth year, the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center is a haven for artists, allowing them to focus on process, to make mistakes, to explore the art of puppetry in all its infinite variety of forms and to have fun. Happy tenth anniversary!

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