First-String Players

Puppet Theater Takes Manhattan

They used to be a subspecies, a hobby, a curiosity, a harmless diversion for kids and a charming sidetrack for ethnologists. Not anymore. Nowadays, at least in the theater, puppets are big news, and the biggest event of every second theatrical season in New York is that invasion of things on strings, the monthlong "Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater." It starts before you've unpacked your bag from Labor Day weekend and explodes nonstop across Manhattan. Marionettes, hand puppets, rod puppets, glove puppets, shadow puppets, and their colleagues don't need sleep like the rest of us, working every hour from kiddie shows in the morning to a late-night puppet cabaret. Started by the Jim Henson Foundation in 1992, the biennial festival has burgeoned till it seems to own New York in alternate Septembers. Its first brochure was a single legal-size sheet; this year's runs to 16 glossy pages, mapping 200-plus performances by 26 companies, plus symposiums and puppet-art exhibits.

Geographically, the festival sprawls from the austere East Side elegance of Japan Society (September 13-16, 333 East 47th Street, 832-1155), where Otome Bunraku will present masterworks whose scripts date back to the Tokugawa shogunate, across to the Kitchen (September 20-24, 512 West 19th Street, 255-5793), at the western end of Chelsea, where Dan Hurlin will stage an evening of "object theater" and master puppet-builder Ralph Lee's Mettawee River Theatre Company will tackle Molière's "comédie-ballet" Psyche (September 6-10). There'll be troupes from France (Philippe Genty, September 19-24, Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, 691-9740), Germany (Albrecht Roser, September 6-10, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 260-2400), England (Faulty Optic, September 6-16, P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, 477-5288), Russia (White Goat, September 7-16, Here, 145 Sixth Avenue, 647-0202), Cuba (Teatro de las Estaciones, September 20-24, Public), Hong Kong (Tang Shu-Wing, September 20-24, Public), and a double bill from India and Peru (September 13-17, Public). Puppet visitors are even coming from places Manhattanites find truly remote, like Chicago (Redmoon Theatre, September 12-17, Public) and Minneapolis (Michael Sommers, September 6-10, Here). Hanne Tierney's shapes and shadows will evoke Salomé at Danspace (September 7-16, 131 East 10th Street, 674-8194), while LaMaMa (74 East 4th Street, 254-6468) will stress mixed-media work, including a film-and-puppet event by Janie Geiser (September 12-17), a "radiophonic" text collage with electronic puppets by a Franco-American team (September 13-24), and Rudi Stern's postpsychedelic Theater of Light (September 12-23).

Two of the festival's most promising items, ironically, come from the country for which we probably (and mistakenly) have the least theatrical regard: Canada. Quebec's master of visual magic, Robert Lepage, will make his first venture into puppetry with The Far Side of the Moon (September 7-10, Public); for extra help, he has a score by one Laurie Anderson. Simultaneously, the sharpest social satirist ever to emerge from Calgary, marionette whiz Ronnie Burkett, will unveil his latest drama, Street of Blood, announced as dealing with AIDS, religion, celebrity worship, and tainted transfusions (September 6-24, New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, 780-9037); Burkett's last piece, which put a futuristic vision of ghettoized gays through the matrix of a World War II Resistance movie, included a piece of puppet cabaret literally taken from that day's headlines. (Both Lepage and Burkett have won Obies, as have Hurlin, Lee—twice—and the world-famous puppeteer whose ambitions have outgrown the small-people's stage, Julie Taymor.)

Ralph Lee's Mettawee River Theatre Company delves into Molière’s Psyche.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Ralph Lee's Mettawee River Theatre Company delves into Molière’s Psyche.

The Puppet Festival has only two problems: choosing what you might enjoy from the welter of performances, and getting tickets to it. Puppeteers and puppet troupes have their followings, so the big-name events sell out quickly, and most puppet events are small-scale by definition. Some information is available at www.hensonfestival.org, where tickets can also be purchased. Many puppeteers have Web sites of their own—puppetry's audience is so intense that some have fan sites as well—and a Web search will often turn up reviews, photos, and even sound bites that can tell you more. And remember, unlike us humans, puppets can do anything. So get ready for an exciting, hectic September. And don't get your strings tangled—it makes your puppet masters unhappy, and there's more of them every year.


All listings by Michael Feingold unless otherwise noted.


A LESSON BEFORE DYING
September 5-October 15
Signature Theatre Company, 555 West 42nd Street, 244-7529

Usually, Signature devotes itself to one writer per season. This year, its millennial "All-Premiere Celebration" begins by unveiling this adaptation, by Romulus Linney, of a novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Next up, in November, will be Horton Foote's new The Last of the Thorntons, starring Estelle Parsons.


I MARRIED AN ANGEL
September 12-24
"Musicals Tonight!," 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, 362-5620

The enterprising concert-on-a-shoestring series "Musicals Tonight!" starts its season of four exceptionally juicy rarities with this dizzy Rodgers & Hart fantasy from 1938, about a Hungarian playboy who weds his winged—and oh-so-innocent—guardian. They'll follow it up December 6-17 with Foxy, the sardonic 1964 Gold Rush adaptation of Jonson's Volpone.


STRAIGHT AS A LINE
September 20-October 22
Primary Stages, 354 West 45th Street, 333-4052

Primary Stages weighs in sometime in the early fall with West Coast writer Luis Alfaro's Straight as a Line, about an HIV-positive New Yorker's adventures with his mom, a casino change girl in Vegas.

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