Theater archives

The Secret Death of Puppets: Beware Chairs Seeking Forbidden Knowledge!


If you stop to think about it, puppetry is a pretty eerie business: temporarily endowing little armatures of cloth and wood with life, movement, and perhaps even language, only to snuff out their tiny existences again when the curtain falls.

Playwright Sibyl Kempson has been thinking about it very seriously, and her ambitious new puppet-spectacle The Secret Death of Puppets—now creeping around Dixon Place, in a production staged by Leslie Strongwater—takes the little critters places they don’t usually go: into occult speculations, mystical situations, and the hazy zones between life and death. (Kempson was inspired by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, a sprawling historical-philosophical tome tracing the porous border between inanimate objects and animate beings—the manifold ways we imbue things with near-life.)

Against backdrops of projected images, the piece’s curio cabinet of performing objects— manipulated by human attendants, and given speech by recorded voiceovers—creaks to life, enacting a series of Edward Gorey–esque vignettes.

A sampling of the peculiar wares on offer:

Three chairs become implicated in a mysterious cabal, seeking forbidden knowledge in arcane rituals. With fevered chanting, the Faustian furnishings summon the spirit of a mysterious red chair possessed of esoteric alchemical secrets. (The appearance of a tiny homunculus-chair suspended in a plastic bubble is particularly delightful).

A human guest at a strange inn holds metaphysical conversations in the attic with a stammering bird—first, it squawks nonsense syllables that sound like language, and then recognizable words that still don’t add up to sense. (This scene—the only one in which the puppeteers step out from behind their charges—treats human beings like puppets, swamping their real voices with dialogue on playback.)

Two sets of puppet legs (apparently orphaned by their torsos) meet in the woods—one, pregnant, soon gives birth to a wind-up baby. Meanwhile, an old lady marionette is slain by the lethal spray of a spectral skunk. (Even the theater’s exit signs get in on the act, detaching themselves from the walls to fulfill their impossible dream—to enter the stage area and dance around.)

Sometimes, though, Kempson’s script roams so far into abstruse wordplay and hermetic abstractions it’s hard to follow her into these strange realms. We’re frequently left grasping at narrative straws or perplexed by vaporous concepts. More a set of sketches than a cohering piece, Secret Death lacks a strong organizing principle beyond twee treatments of gothic scenarios (and the puppets themselves). But the strange and frequently surreally funny visuals mostly make up for the literary murk and verbal quirk. This seems to be a work-in-progress, and, with Kempson pulling the strings, we can look forward to further whimsical-weird investigations of the existential terrain where humans and puppets converge.