Punch and Circumstance: A World of Puppetry From Charleville-Mézières to Brooklyn

For most New York theatergoers, it's a challenge to get to a show if it's in Brooklyn, Queens, or even at an especially remote location on the Lower East Side. So for a Manhattanite like me, the incentive to travel to northeastern France to attend the 14th World Festival of Puppet Theaters had to be big. The deal was sealed not because I'd have the opportunity to study puppet and marionette theater more closely, or because I'd represent the United States at an international young theater critics seminar, or even to make use of the five years of French I took in middle and high school. Those things were part of it, but mostly I just wanted to eat some really good French bread.

Every three years, the town of Charleville-Mézières (most famous as the birthplace of the original angst-ridden teen poet, Arthur Rimbaud) is overrun by puppeteers. They fill the theaters, the hotels, and even the streets, where a tall person with an eagle eye can always catch a show. At this September's festival, more than 250 productions were going on; I saw 16 of them, plus snippets of sidewalk performances.

Prospective audiences should be aware that they'll need two things to get through the shows: a strong command of the French language and a strong pair of hands. While there are a handful of shows in English and some without text, it would be a shame to miss the country's own contributions. (I also attended some so-called "sans texte" shows, which did have important voice-overs in French.) The local theater patrons also give extended rounds of applause at the end of shows. It's not uncommon for the performers to take three or four curtain calls for an appreciative crowd, which can be frustrating for those who didn't like the show, or who just want to leave quickly at the end.

The most impressive shows at the festival were the following:

Spectacle Traditionnel (Theatre National des Marionnettes sur l'Eau; Vietnam), which incorporated a huge stage of water in a display of synchronized movement and rural life set to music. In Vietnam, water puppet shows have been performed since the 11th century, yet the show was just as beautiful, imaginative, and entertaining as it must have been a thousand years ago.

Vampyr (Stuffed Puppet; the Netherlands), a gothic tale of fathers, sons, and the undead set in a European campground. Puppeteer/actor Neville Tranter can manipulate and voice two puppets while acting as a third person in a scene, without skipping a beat. While the story line wasn't very strong, the performance and show design were fabulous. If John Waters decided to stage a second-rate Tim Burton tale with puppets, it would look like this.

Le Remède de Polichinelle (La Pendue; France), a traditional Punch (of Punch and Judy) story hosted by a lanky, motor-mouthed Frenchman with a mohawk. The traditional beats of a Punch show (including love, murder, and escape from the police) were all here, along with a subplot about the female marionnettiste's attempts to create a miracle elixir that will cure Punch of his devilish behavior. Children and adults were in fits over the show, which relied more on movement than on scripted dialogue. The puppeteers took their time with the action, allowing themselves to have fun with the puppets and take the events to exaggerated and hilarious levels.

The shows that didn't work out as well were often hindered by poor scripts and high concepts. A German production called Intimitäten (Intimate Things) by Iris Meinhardt was literally artistic navel-gazing, as a woman used a minicamera to project her insides onto voluminous petticoats as she discussed her search to know herself better as a person. An Italian production called L'oiseau de Feu (The Fire Bird) by Teatro Gioco Vita used way too much dance and not enough shadow puppetry in a wordless piece about love and captivity. (I knew that the show would be too long when it was listed at 50 minutes but a narrator explained the plot in less than two minutes.)

Energized by all of the imaginative puppet theater that's being done overseas, I decided to look into the local scene when I returned from France. I'd seen Avenue Q and The Lion King but was hoping that Off-Off-Broadway would offer its typical low-budget/highly inventive take on the genre. As luck would have it, I came back just in time for the September edition of Punch, a monthly puppet showcase at Galapagos Art Space curated by the Brooklyn-based puppet theater Drama of Works.

Featured in this installment were Matty Sidle's short puppet films (starring Unicycle Baby Guy), DoW's Sid & Nancy Punch & Judy, Ceili Clemens with a short shadow performance, the Josh and Tamra Show (puppet improv), and Exploding Puppet Productions with a scene from Die Hard: The Puppet Musical. The performances were all fairly short, which worked for some concepts better than others. ("Short films" and improv work best in small doses; a Punch show and a movie-based "puppet musical" get funnier the longer they run.)

The Josh and Tamra Show seemed to be the group most comfortable with its puppets; Josh (the puppeteer) was obviously enjoying playing with the vocal characterization and body language of his "actors." Ceili Clemens's shadow puppets were beautiful, and it was interesting to see them paired with an original song, but her presentation would have been more effective if she had sung and someone else had manipulated the shadows (or if the music had been prerecorded). Her singing was rushed, which made the movements rushed—a shame, since shadow puppets ought to linger on the screen longer so the audience has time to absorb and appreciate them.

Sid and Nancy (the “first couple” of punk) as Punch and Judy is a great concept, and Sid & Nancy Punch & Judy had a swell production design: a graffitied cardboard box as stage; two-dimensional, black and white, graphic novel-style drawings of the main characters; and hypodermic needles instead of bats. However, the scenes were weighed down by dialogue; more "show" and less "tell" would have made the action smarter and more interesting, and played to the puppets' strength (physicality) rather than their weakness (emotion).

One-note jokes were the theme of the Matty Sidle shorts and the Die Hard scene, with varying degrees of success. Unicycle Baby Guy is a bald-headed creature with a unicycle for a lower half that travels through space having brief encounters with other bizarre creatures. The shorts are filmed in black and white with intentionally fuzzy picture quality and last just long enough for the characters to use slang incorrectly and for UBG to be rejected or comforted by those he meets. Their humor is derived from the complete absurdity of the language and situations, and from their abbreviated length, since scenes seem to be cut off early and end abruptly, leaving audiences surprised and unsettled by what they just saw.

Die Hard: The Puppet Musical contains its concept in the title; the humor is in putting clichéd action dialogue into felt mouths and adding an unrequited love subplot that is addressed in song. It was unclear to me if this is being developed for a full-length project or will ultimately be presented in single-scene length to different audiences. The song was the best part of the scene—or, rather, the slide show of two terrorists engaging in different attacks that was shown during the song. The more the script strayed from the original film, the funnier it became.

On the whole, I was left with the impression that puppet theater is still very much in its infancy in New York. Theater companies have the means and ingenuity to create good-looking, unique puppets, but they haven't yet fully explored the possibilities of the form. At the World Festival of Puppet Theaters, there was only one American entry: Huber Marionettes, which provided the marionettes in the film Being John Malkovich.

While beautiful to look at and entertaining to watch, this was a very traditional show. Here's hoping that groups like the ones at Punch continue to develop and maybe add some American avant-garde puppet theater to the big stage in Charleville-Mézières.

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