Puppetry tends by nature toward the meta- physical, or at least toward the surreal. Liberated from the realist implications of human actors, sized according to plot significance, political power, moral rectitude, or what have you, and indifferent even to gravity, puppets can undergo transformations and transcendences that are unimaginable in any other form. As a result, puppets are at their core a beguiling self-contradiction: on one hand, the very symbol of being controlled and manipulated; on the other, the fantasy of unrestricted possibility made animate.
It’s no wonder, then, that some of the best puppet spectacles in the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater dramatize this paradox, pitting the miniature figures against mammoth powers like totalitarian regimes, satanic forces, or God. And often, the most potent image of this wrenching contest between control and free will is the puppet’s direct confrontation of the puppeteer. Increasingly, the master manipulators are unmasking themselves, making their size and authority matters for question—and even for undoing.
The human invasion of the puppet space is especially provocative in A Prelude to Faust, a multileveled and raucous rumination on choice by Michael Sommers and the Open Eye Figure Theatre. Two theatrical worlds come to life through his puppet stage’s small aperture, whose colorful curtain sets a postmod medieval tone with its coyly gaping, fire-breathing hell-mouth. One story follows the exploits of Kasper, the bug-eyed, ear-wiggling comic hero of traditional folk forms: In romping, rhyming couplets, he considers the Mephistophelian bargain as he stumbles upon devil-conjuring incantations at a job cleaning Faust’s study.
These manic scenes are interspersed with meditative images of a man—represented both by an 18-inch guy-in-a-suit puppet, and by a live actor who looms into the stage from its floor, appearing always from the chest up, bust come to despairing life. Unlike the Kasper scenes—and unlike a jaunty prologue featuring Adam and Eve partaking of the apple—these sequences are often wordless and open in the best tradition of the theater of images. In an upstage, arched portal, the live man reaches for an apple, a quill, and an egg, only to have them yanked from his grasp by disembodied human hands emerging from the wings. These same hands exert cosmic control as they snake gracefully through tiny doorways to set props or to chalk messages onto various surfaces. The word seed, for instance, goes up across the stage, later to be edited into heed and deed.
In addition to the deep delight of the puppets themselves—Eve is a spindly skeleton with bulbous breasts, Mephistopheles a charming green-headed, red-lipped hulk who laments that he “coulda been a contenda”—A Prelude to Faust offers an alchemical mixture of forms, matched by the alternating oom-pah-pahs and mournful cello lines of an accompanying four-person orchestra. As the piece goes on, the rowdy and silly Kasper scenes gather more gravity than the ponderous images of the befuddled and searching man, as Kasper shrugs off temptation for the satisfactions of his simple life.
Ronnie Burkett brings his puppeteer self into Street of Blood in more literal and ultimately less evocative ways: He plays a boyish, self-satisfied Jesus Christ who battles an aging-movie-queen-turned-hungry-vampire, contends with the recriminations of a relentlessly cheery housewife, and gets baited by the bitchy dismissals of her rage-filled gay-terrorist son. But long before Jesus triumphs in a weird final battle with the vampire and declares, “I’m back!” Burkett is moralizing away—and in disturbingly old-fashioned ways.
There’s no question that Burkett is a master marionette maker and operator. As in his highly acclaimed contribution to the last Henson festival, Tinka‘s New Dress, the 14 puppets in this cast are intricate 15-inch beings, each with distinct and telling facial features and movements. An enchanting prologue introduces some of the townsfolk of Turnip Corners, Alberta: the members of the local ladies orchestra. Each ambles or lopes or prances onto the stage as her character warrants, and takes up her clarinet or xylophone sticks, as the case may be. The gestures are precise and delicate, promising a virtuosic evening.
And indeed, the puppetry remains prodigious. The Antichrist movie star, Esme Massengill, swaggers in glittery outfits that droop pathetically on her spindly frame; the heroic housewife, Edna Rural, a self-described “old biddy in a Sears housedress,” seems to radiate heat from her pudgy red cheeks. Throughout, Burkett gives distinctive voice to even the most minor characters, including when they sing.
But the astonishment summoned by the puppets soon gives way to the boredom and irritability provoked by the script. Where Tinka‘s New Dress overcame the predictability of its plotting with its inventiveness and intriguing subject—”the underground puppet theaters of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia”—Street of Blood collapses under the ponderousness of Burkett’s preachy playwriting. Meanwhile, as the stereotypical central female characters suggest—one a vicious and sexy narcissist, the other a self-effacing and chaste exemplar of virtue—the misogyny here is a discouraging throwback. Not to mention the snooty condescension toward rural folk or the suggestion that homophobic violence is staged by queers themselves.
Edna prattles on as the narrator of the story, noting at one point that family crises were tough in the days before “Oprah told us what to think.” But just when you hope that Burkett might be taking a jab at media manipulation, his own writing goes ultra-Oprah. The supposedly big emotional payoff comes when Edna’s son, Eden, accepts her as his “real” mother, albeit an adoptive one, and then Edna unleashes her own pent-up rage at the judgmental church ladies in town. The quirks that might give the piece some spark—Eden’s bombing of gay bars, the vampire’s trading in uncontaminated blood as currency—require the unflinching excess of a Jeff Weiss. Burkett is far too sentimental to take such creepy ideas beyond the psychobabble resolutions he gives them. Hobbled by such sanctimony, the spirit he breathes magnificently into his lumps of clay and strings never takes flight.