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.


THE BEGINNING OF AUGUST
September 26-November
Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 West 20th Street, 645-8015

It may be a contradictory way to start the fall, but this new play is by Tom Donaghy, who gave the Atlantic its much lauded Minutes From the Blue Route. The company will follow it up, come December, with Force Continuum, a new work by one of the most adventurous young women now writing, Kia Corthron.


OEDIPUS REX
October 4-8
City Center, 131 West 55th Street, 581-1212

It may be Greek to you, but Sophocles's Oedipus, the incestuous mother of all Western drama, will howl through City Center, in a staging by Vassilis Papavasiliou for the National Theatre of Greece.


WAR OF THE WORLDS
October 4-8
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100

Anne Bogart and Naomi Iizuka's study of Orson Welles, through the notorious 1938 broadcast that panicked New Jersey, puts theater into BAM's Next Wave Festival.


OTHER PEOPLE
October 12-November 5
The Studio Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, 2nd floor, 279-4200

The most recent example of an American dramatist who had to go abroad to get discovered, Christopher Shinn is more than ready for his American close-up. His portrait of East Village artists struggling with their careers, relationships, and holiday despair made its debut at London's Royal Court a few years back. But it's the playwright's fellow Downtown denizens who can appreciate just how well he knows of what he writes. (McNulty)


UTTAR-PRIYADARSHI (THE FINAL BEATITUDE)
October 25-28
BAM Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100

Acclaimed across Asia and Europe, director Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre of Manipur, India, brings its chant-laden staging of an epic tale to America for the first time.


STRANGER
October
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, 353-3366

A chance meeting on a plane sparks Craig Lucas's suspense drama, his first new work since The Dying Gaul; Mark Brokaw again directs, but the theater's keeping mum about the plot.


THE UNEXPECTED MAN
October
Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway, at 76th Street, 239-6200

Off-Broadway gets a taste of Europe with the latest play by Art author Yasmina Reza, starring Alan Bates, last seen onstage here a quarter-century ago in Butley.


REQUIEM FOR SREBRENICA
November 8-11
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4202

After going on a monthlong hunger strike to protest the European Union's inaction during the Bosnian massacre, French writer-director Olivier Py created this theatrical collage: part poetic, part image-theater, part documentary, and all new to us.


TINY ALICE
November 16
Second Stage Theater, 307 West 43rd Street, 787-8302

The Second Stage will add some chill to the autumn air with Albee's spooky, rarely revived Tiny Alice, staged by Mark Lamos, with Richard Thomas as the naive Brother Julian.


BOOK OF THE DEAD (SECOND AVENUE)
November
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 260-2400

The Public Theater gets a musical start in November with this spiritual new spectacle, by electronic samplings king John Moran, that ranges from early Egypt to late McDonald's.

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