27 May 2009

Puppet Mastery

Allergies continue to plague my existence, and after work yesterday I also realized I had lost -- in the very same day as buying it -- my $81 monthly metro pass. This led to a return to the office (yes; said discovery took place once I had walked the three avenue blocks to the station) for to be searching, then logging on to the MTA's website to ensure my refund. This left no time for writing, the very purpose for which I dared bring my spanking new laptop (dubbed Gracie, by the way) out into the harsh urban environment. When all was said and done, I was glad my late-night meeting had been canceled. I was even considering revising my plans with Friend Patrick so that I could surrender to countless omens, go home and do the thousand mundane tasks screaming for attention at the moment. Maybe even make up for some of that lost writing time.

I'm glad I did not.

The event of which Patrick reminded me was Slutty Puppets, a semi-regular sort of vaudeville of puppetry (and quite a bit of clowning, as it turns out) works-in-progress. The show had originally come up a couple of weeks ago when I was looking for shows we could see at Galapagos' DUMBO space, a venue by which Patrick is rather inspired. Me too, at this point. It's arranged as a kind of theatre-cum-club, and the main audience area is divided into six clusters of seating suspended by curling iron walkways over a shallow pool. With a bar at the back, a mezzanine, relatively high ceilings and a proscenium stage, it's at once intimate and rather awing -- perfect for variety or environmental stuff, in my humble opinion.

As for Slutty Puppets itself, it was not what I expected. The works were mostly excerpts, and largely seemed to be very much in progress, if you are picking up what I'm throwing down. However: Puppets! Maybe it's just my upbringing, but it's hard to be disappointed or overly critical of puppetry. I love it. I have no problems with the medium whatsoever. I was raised by puppets, in part, and the Henson child in me responds to inanimate objects given behavior and personality the way Pavlov's puppy responded to that dang ding-a-ling. It's one on a list of activities over which I kick myself every time I realize I still haven't devoted just a little time and energy to learning more about. In a way, it's a very pure, direct form of a general aim of mine in life: To bring more life into it.

Um. Interpret that as you may.

What I kept thinking about last night, as we moved through various degrees of preparation and bawdiness, were the ways in which puppets could be used effectively on stage. This is quite a preoccupation of mine, actually. Before I even knew who Julie Taymor was (she is best known in wider circles for engineering the The Lion King musical) I was imagining productions rather like hers. I always want to bring magic into my stories, and I especially like the sort of magic that is fueled by live performers (read: relatively inexpensive). Even as I found ways to do this with circus skills, I started imagining those skills applied to creating creatures -- puppets, in effect. As I watched the variety of forms of puppetry last night, slutty and non, I returned to that niche of my imagination a little.

The thing for me is, I don't want my puppets watered down. I want them terrifying and funny and weird and fascinating, and I want them a part of a story I care about. It's simple enough to use puppets to tell a story about, say, a girl who travels to a magical realm, or to tell a tale involving largely Aesop-esque animals. (It's not simple. That's stupid. It's actually very complex, no matter how you do it. Ignore me.) I want a story that incorporates puppets that are mysterious, and interactive with "regular" actors, and that I end up, against all possible odds, feeling something for. I'd like to hold a puppets performance to the same standards I would an unadorned actor's. That, my friends, would be something to 'blog about.

I wrote a little while ago (see 5/18/09) about Coraline, and that one of the few truly effective moments for me involved puppets of ghosts. They were very simple. They might've been a couple of sticks with a handkerchief draped over them, one the head, another the functioning hand. At their introduction, they surround Coraline like needy children and tell their stories. You may not notice it right away, but the ghost to her right is doing something slightly different from the others. The hand with which he's gently petting her as he speaks is shuddering. Slightly. Like a very human tremor.

Frighteningly effective.


monique said...

Have you watched Labyrinth recently? I watched it a couple of years ago, and unlike most of my childhood favorites, it stood up pretty well. Or maybe I just have bad taste. I won't deny that possibility. Anyway, some of the puppet stuff with the Firies was pretty cool, I thought.

Jeff Wills said...

I feel exactly the same about that movie, Monique. It holds up beautifully. I often wonder how Jennifer Connolly feels about it now. Maybe she should invite me over for drinks some time. To, you know, discuss the film...

Remi said...

I feel silly for asking this, but have you seen Avenue Q? It does a good job of puppet/person interaction in a live atmosphere. Even better, it takes away some of the mystery of puppetry by not trying to hide the puppeteers. You can really appreciate the art when someone is doing a voice for the puppet they're holding and the voice for a puppet puppet who is being lipsynced on the fly by a puppeteer standing across the stage from them.

They recently moved to LA, but the improv duo Josh and Tamara do an excellent job of melding puppets and improvised comedy, and will probably be in NYC at some point.

Jeff Wills said...

I have seen Avenue Q (you silly, silly SOB) and it is a delight. Watching the actor's faces coordinated with their puppet's expression is priceless, and a lesson in commitment. Make Avenue Q with less directly anthropomorphic puppets, and I'll be in the front row every dang night. I'll have to look into Josh and Tamara, and thanks for that!