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Though a trifle stiff and prone to fixed expression, puppets, paper dolls, and objets trouvés performers have certain advantages over their flesh-and-blood counterparts. They don’t voice creative differences; they don’t carry on fraught affairs with cast mates; they don’t arrive at rehearsal drunk, drugged, or late. Perhaps theatrical theorists Adolphe Appia, E. Gordon Craig, and Heinrich von Kleist were onto something when they suggested that marionettes and automata—those devoid of self-consciousness, or any consciousness at all—make the best thespians.
Legions of these inert actors get their moment in the clip light as Great Small Works sponsors its sixth International Toy Theater Festival, at Here through January 25. In their original incarnation, toy theaters, which first attained popularity in the early 19th century, were cardboard simulacra of actual stages—some flaunting movable parts and material for scene changes. “Framed, miniature, flat, and mass-produced” (as Great Small Works explain in song), these theaters became popular children’s entertainments, proto-Barbie Dream Houses with proscenium arches. Children and parents could become ultimate auteurs, restaging hit plays of the day or scripting, designing, and performing their own. Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Winston Churchill all played with them. (That last example explains a lot.) As in years past, the festival includes an exhibit of several of the oldest surviving toy theaters as well as more modern interpretations—including one, constructed by an 11-year-old boy, devoted to a satanic depiction of George W. Bush.
Like the exhibit, many of the festival’s first- weekend productions took a broad view of what constitutes a toy theater. Some used traditional stages, but others transformed and revised them: dispensing with the proscenium, displaying large-scale props, employing human actors. Local puppeteer Liz Joyce supplied one of the more conventional and gratifying entries with The Crispy Tale of St. Crispin and Crispinian, or The Cobblers That Just Wouldn’t Die. Joyce presents an uncomplicated, irreverent hagiography of the patron saints of showbiz—two shoemakers who survived many an attempt to shut them up. Oddly, the paper dolls playing the martyrs resemble nothing so much as the wildly sacrosanct Terence and Philip of South Park fame. Happily, they prove far less flatulent. Straightforward storytelling also benefited Robert Poulter’s exquisite, if somewhat pompous, The Loyal 47. A paper theater version of a popular Japanese Noh play, the piece features lavish sets and dazzling silhouettes, but suffers from Poulter’s oleaginous narration, which lingers over every syllable of “ritual disemboweling.”
No ritual disemboweling enlivened Insurrection Landscapers’ Historical Enactment of World War III, but the piece’s narrator—a mammalian skull—did begin to decompose halfway through. “Oh, I’m losing my face,” the skull remarked, and then continued a tale derived from The Matrix and Terminator II, starring robots collaged from home appliance advertisements. Historical Reenactment wore its politics on its sleeve—or, rather, the robot equivalent of a sleeve—as did many of the other productions. The unabashedly lovely and unabashedly precious Three Books in the Garden, by Great Small Works, records a few centuries of religious tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain. Despite some insipid dialogue, the more-ish Moorish proscenium and the soundtrack—performed on PVC tubes and sponges—delighted. Three Books would have benefited from a touch of the irreverence Clare Dolan lent to her Go-Go Girl for President Theater’s The Opposite of Happiness. Dolan lightens her meditations on de Tocqueville and American imperialism with a scene featuring a library outfitted with a hot tub full of beautiful girls and fiddle accompaniment by Dolan’s white-bearded Vermont neighbor.
Further instances of fine accompaniment were the kazoo and banjos that complemented Dave Buchen’s affable sing-along to a modified Wobblies tune, The Popular Puppeteer. Less affable were Jonathan Berger’s The Noble Fir Series and Daniel Lang-Levitsky’s Samson. The former jumbled talcum powder, shipwreck, and firecrackers into a surrealist mess, the latter equated the Arab-Israeli conflict with rough trade, dramatized by a bobbing corkscrew. And though P.T. Barnum’s midgets might seem an apt topic for miniature theatrics, the Thumb Company’s Sensational Pygmy Prodigies proved only minutely entertaining.
Much greater pleasures could be found in the reptilian rhapsody of Brian Selznick’s The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. An adaptation of a Caldecott-winning children’s book that Selznick illustrated, there is much childlike but nothing childish in this production. Attired in a handsome suit and natty beard, standing before an antique writing desk, Selznick wordlessly describes Hawkins’s prodigious assembly of fossils and the dinner party he once held in the frame of his Iguanadon. Tragedy ensues when Hawkins journeys to America, runs afoul of Boss Tweed, and sees his dinosaurs buried beneath Central Park. All true! Enraptured (en-raptored?) audiences were left speechless as Selznick, pointing and gasping as each desk drawer disclosed a new wonder. Even Joseph Cornell might have felt a twinge of envy. Selznick controls every aspect of the performance, and every aspect is marvelous. In The Rings of Saturn, novelist W.G. Sebald writes, “What manner of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter, and audience?” Sebald here refers to the theater of our dreams, but, as Selznick shows, in excellent toy theater that vision can be realized, awake.