Puppetry

Made in China

Made in China is a decidedly adult musical from Wakka Wakka, a New York–based theater company that prides itself on challenging “the boundaries of the imagination” with “bold, unique, and unpredictable” entertainments. This visually engaging production is performed by a host of black-veiled puppeteers manipulating intricately crafted bunraku-style puppets designed by Kirjan Waage. The script, by Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock (“with help from the Made in China Ensemble”), pushes the boundaries of puppet earthiness with a vengeance—it features puppet nudity, a puppet performing ordinarily private bodily functions, puppet copulation (both human and canine), and a puppet-dragon that has a mind-blowing digestive system.

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Who’s the Fool?

There are only so many ways to describe the Jessica Scott's avant-garde Ship of Fools, currently at HERE Arts Center. On the one hand, it is a unique combination of original music, puppetry, video, and live action, yet on the other it comes across as disjointed and meaningless—imagine Disney’s “It’s a Small World” born in the 1960s Haight-Ashbury. The audience is seated on a platform that moves left or right, and sometimes rotates completely, giving the performers time to set up the next vignette on the perimeter. The challenge of this production is that it is a series of quirky, random scenes with little, if any, cohesiveness. Is the audience on the ship observing the fools, or is the audience really the fool? Jessica Weinstein in Jessica Scott’s "Ship of Fools." Top: The production uses extensive video. Photos by Richard Termine

While some of the pieces stand on their own, too many of them begin to tell a story, then stop as the audience is moved again. Three characters appear, hand-in-hand, with their backs to the audience; they are dressed in grayish tulle dresses and large, Medusa-like wigs. Modern dance movement ensues, and then they pull tight, they sway, and a model of a three-masted ship appears above their wigs as if they are riding the high seas. It crashes and sinks. The actors “melt” into their dresses, leaving only the dresses and wigs. The audience rotates.

In another scene a woman stands on a box dressed in a nightgown with a large, black, ringlet-type wig. Hands appear from behind her, caressing her, until they pull open the dressing gown. A hand with a knife slices open her belly revealing guts and intestines, which the hands pull out of her while her eyes express shock and fear. The hand proceeds to slice off the top of her head, her eyes look up, and the hands pull out more body parts. The top of her head is replaced. Rotate audience.

A miniature puppet scene on an elevated revolving platform displays a psychiatrist and a woman on a fainting couch. The psychiatrist appears to write while the woman is clearly agitated. The scene then turns to show a painter and a model. It switches between the scenes until the wall in the middle is pulled away and the scenes become a single one, whirling around. The audience rotates again.

One interesting scene in this tonally dark production that stands out uses film, video, and six large white screens on wheels, hinged together in threes. The screens are used to display vintage film of women in a psychiatric ward; however, the screens are manipulated from behind to stretch and bend the images, elongating or compressing features. The film switches to video of a woman with bare shoulders loosely wrapped in a shawl. Her image is distorted, and the screens continue to move but also open in the middle to show the woman seated on the floor in front of a video camera. It is an intelligent and creative visual representation of how the mind distorts truth.

Jessica Weinstein i the xxx production, which has a video background.

Conceived by Scott, Ship of Fools is co-directed by Eamonn Farrell, who is credited with text and projection design. Credits are also given to Anonymous Ensemble, who helped design the production; that may explain the lack of cohesive thought. Original music is by Alex Klimovitsky, with lyrics by Farrell.

Near the end of the 75-minute production, an actress in a gown stands in front of a microphone accepting an award. The screens are utilized again, on either side of her, with a woman’s face displayed in two halves. Text, attributed to famous actresses’ acceptance speeches, appears in one of the corners. The microphone stand in front of her moves and sways; sometimes it modulates her voice (sound is by Gavin Price, also a musician) and at other times she moves with it, trying to pretend nothing is wrong. The microphone rocks forward and back, appearing to attack her until she yanks it from the stand. A long, diaphanous piece of cloth is pulled in between her and the audience, who then rotate away. The cloth undulates to simulate waves, leaving one to question, Where is the ship? Who’s the fool?

Ship of Fools is performed through Oct. 22 at the HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave., just below Spring Street; entrance is on Dominick Street). Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with additional shows at 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $35. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit here.org/shows/detail/1822.

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Living and Laughing Together

Fans of the hit television sitcom The Golden Girls can now experience Blanche (Cat Greenfield), Rose (Arlee Chadwick), Dorothy (Michael LaMasa) and Sophia (Emmanuelle Zeesman) all over again. But this time these lovely ladies have returned as puppets in Jonathan Rockefeller’s That Golden Girls Show!—A Puppet Parody. Capitalizing on moments from the original television show for loyal fans is where this production shines. Nostalgia quickly sets in upon entering the theater. Scenic and lighting designer David Goldstein marvelously transforms the stage into the women’s popular 1985 Miami living room and kitchen. From the floral paintings on the living room walls to the white, bamboo style chairs in the kitchen, everything feels like an exact replica of the original television show. When the opening theme song, “Thank You for Being a Friend,” started playing, the audience could not help but sing along.

Dorothy (Michael LaMasa) with Rose (Arlee Chadwick), Blanche (Cat Greenfield) and Sophia (Emmanuelle Zeesman) in Jonathan Rockefeller's "That Golden Girls Show!—A Puppet Parody." Top (from left): Rose (Chadwick), Dorothy (LaMasa), Sophia (Zeesman) and Blanche (Greenfield).

The puppets, designed by talented puppet creator and director Joel Gennari, share a resemblance to the puppets on Avenue Q. They display their own customized wardrobe and accessories. Blanche even modifies her appearance after undergoing plastic surgery, with gigantic lips and larger breasts. Puppeteer Greenfield captures the seductive body movements of Blanche, and Zeesman nails Sophia’s cranky voice. As the only male performing with female puppets, LaMasa brings gravitas to Dorothy, while Chadwick never fully blossoms into Rose.

The production is filled with hilarious gags and zingers as the women clash with one another. Sophia talked openly about Dorothy’s sex life and bluntly says, “Dorothy hasn’t been laid since Nixon.” Dorothy commented on Blanche’s appearance and said, “[Blanche], that color really complements your stretch marks.” Later, Dorothy repeats a joke and Blanche says, “Dorothy, that’s the same joke twice.” Without hesitation, Dorothy says, “Like your boobs, [Blanche].” Complaining about her own sex life, Blanche says, “I don’t know if I’d know a penis if I sat on one.” Sophia doesn’t hold back from talking about Dorothy’s weight either: “Last time we went to the beach Greenpeace actually tried to pull [Dorothy] back into the ocean.” Instead of partaking in the quick-witted banter, simple-minded Rose resorts to sharing a story about an absurd, fictional Scandinavian language that she learned during her upbringing in St. Olaf, Minn.

At 90 minutes, the show eventually falters by relying solely on the popularity of these sassy, larger-than-life women and their personalities more than a clear plot for the audience to grasp. At times the pacing lags and the jokes feel forced. It quickly becomes predictable that the only way these women can solve their problems is by returning to the kitchen and sitting around another cheesecake.

From left: Dorothy (LaMasa), Blanche (Greenfield), Sophia (Zeesman) and Rose (Chadwick) watching themselves on television. Photos by Russ Rowland.

Eventually, a delayed plot unfolds that has Blanche and Rose chasing after Dorothy’s shadowy ex-husband, Stanley—played not by a puppet but by Zach Kononov—and his inheritance. Blanche unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Stanley with her deflatable breasts. Rose meticulously whips up some white goop in the kitchen that looks like porridge for Stanley to enjoy. Dorothy, unaware of Stanley’s inheritance, spends her time struggling with her broken heart and the thought of having him back in her life. Sophia cannot restrain herself from digressing and sharing her opinions about Stanley and Dorothy’s relationship. Since Stanley is played by a live actor, he communicates with Dorothy through a homemade sock puppet that he uses for therapeutic purposes.

The play really begins to reach for new material, or fill in time, toward the latter part when the women sit around an outdated television set in their living room and watch themselves on The Golden Girls. It is like being deliberately reminded that the production is just supposed to be a parody, and it takes away from the show’s power. The real magic is experiencing how the original material from the television show translates to a world of smart-mouthed puppets living together in Miami.

For audiences unfamiliar with the original television show, the references and inside jokes might not land as well, and the play could feel like a saucy offshoot of Avenue Q without the songs. For die-hard “golden girls,” the production may not entirely reach the same expectations that they would have by staying home and watching reruns of the television show. That Golden Girls Show!—A Puppet Parody does have a little something for everyone who enjoys quick-witted humor from the perspective of a group of women living out their golden years together.

That Golden Girls Show!—A Puppet Parody runs until Dec. 11 at the DR2 Theatre (103 East 15 St., between Irving Place and Union Square East) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 10 p.m. on Friday; and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Matinee performances are at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets cost $69 or $99. To purchase tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit thatgoldengirlsshow.com.

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Hats for Free!

It’s rare to see anything remotely like Torry Bend’s The Paper Hat Game: a seamless and brilliant performance collage of live puppets, small-scale set models, a variety of video modalities, intricate soundscape, and more. The delicacy, virtuosity, and utter freshness of this avant-garde theater work at the 3LD Art & Technology Center will delight you long after you’ve left the theater. Unselfconsciously Dada, surrealist, naturalist and psychodrama by turns, it is also none of those things: something utterly new. And, if you are a New Yorker, it will evoke the urban details and sounds that you never noticed make up your own life in the same way that you didn’t quite notice your childhood as you lived through it.  

The story of The Paper Hat Game is based on Scotti Iseri, who would ride the trains in Chicago, making and giving out paper hats to fellow riders, mostly to their enchantment. Bend, creator and director of this extraordinary show, was among those who saw the real Iseri on the Chicago train day after day when she was a graduate student. At one point, she decided to also make and distribute paper hats on her train ride, but was never greeted with the same openness that Iseri, an app developer, inspired. The show is both a fascinating tribute to Iseri, but also to the vitality, the life, the people, the humdrum and the magic of a great city.   

It is this throbbing, ever-shifting cityscape, its sounds, the screech of train wheels on tracks, recorded messages of all sorts, buildings, tunnels, windows, and most of all, trains, that The Paper Hat Game brings us, from behind a puppet stage whose height and width are a few feet in each direction. As the show unfolds, the city we no longer taste, smell, or hear rears up phantasmagorically and from every angle possible. At one point we find ourselves looking down on the head of a boy sitting in the subway; at another we are inside a subway car peering into the faces of passengers. Sizes of familiar objects shift and change. And for an instant suspended in time, a paper hat that flies out a window hangs in a huge space of sky, a glorious city, now tiny and spread out before it.  All this as our paper hat-making hero weaves his way in and out of view. 

The 50-minute production is visually and acoustically dense—exquisitely so. There are few words and just a small amount of dialogue that punctuate the soundscape. In this way, Colbert Davis and Matt Hubbs' sound design brings to our attention the vast world of urban sound we work so hard to push away, ignore, disregard. Yes, there are cellos thrown into the mix at several points and some violin ensemble work as well, but overwhelmingly this sound team has choreographed the bell of the trains we ride just before the train doors close, the mechanized announcements of train stations, the varieties of chugs and screeches of the iron monster, and so much more  of the recognizable cityscape into a music that is suddenly foregrounded, heard, and, if only for a short magical space of time, no longer in the background.    

Bend’s creative team from co-producers The Tank and 3-Legged Dog includes the amazing video designer, Raquel Salvatella de Prada, the haunting light design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, the fantastical puppet designer, Aaron Haskell, and five puppeteers:  Angela Olson, Drina Dunlap, Steve Ackerman, Yolo Myoi, and Alex Young. The exquisite detail involved on the part of the team in coordinating multiple effects within the performance is astonishing: puppets and video with photo-in-motion and set pieces with soundscape and light.   

Is this work, so grounded in an urban poetic, the harbinger of a new urban American transcendentalism? Like Scotti Iseri himself, The Paper Hat Game brings a childlike sense of wonder to the mundane. It lifts up the dross and detail that is the DNA of daily urban life so that we might see our city with fresh eyes, our lives with a new heart, and listen to our urban world with fresh ears.  

Performances of The Paper Hat Game continue through July 17 at 3LD Art and Technology Center (80 Greenwich St., at Rector, in lower Manhattan). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students with valid student ID) and may be purchased by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006 or by visiting www.3ldnyc.org.

 

 

 

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No Words…

The thing most everyone loves about birds is their ability to fly, yet one of the first things we do is catch them and put them in a cage. The same can be said of love. Told without a single spoken word, Butterfly, currently at 59E59 Theaters, unwraps a story of a kite-maker who is courted by a customer but is smitten with a butterfly catcher. The hour-long production is rich with symbolism, European and Asian sensibilities, and movement choreographed to haunting original music.

Beautifully acted by Naomi Livingstone, Chris Alexander and Ramesh Meyyappan, who also created and directed the play, Butterfly opens with the three characters miming kite flying with synchronized, lyrical movement. Meyyappan, as the butterfly lover Nabokov, is the first to break off with hand motions of a butterfly fluttering around the stage. It becomes clear quickly that both the customer (Alexander) and the butterfly catcher are more than interested in the ubiquitous Butterfly (Livingstone.)

Alexander, as the customer, is charming in a boyish manner, always bringing Butterfly a wrapped gift when he comes to purchase kites. Butterfly flirts with him but is taken aback when he comes in close. It is Nabokov who steals her heart, much like he catches his butterflies. Excited that he is moving in with her, she changes and alters her behavior and routine to fit his mood. At first Butterfly is taken with his butterfly-net acumen, but she is horrified at watching the chloroform kill the butterfly so that Nabokov can mount his specimen.

The gift of a comb from the customer sets jealousy in motion. Butterfly is at the brunt of it as Nabokov aggressively combs her hair with the gift. In an effort to appease him, she attempts to return the comb to the customer. Filled with the rage of rejection, he forces himself on her. When Nabokov learns of this, he rejects her. The dramatic, wrenching scene is played out twice. It becomes evident that she is replaying the scene, much like anyone who has been the victim of violence replays the event over and over in his or her head. Her barely audible wailing is the closest thing to a spoken word.

What follows is a series of exquisitely portrayed events: a dream sequence using a doll in the likeness of Nabokov, the birth of her child employing bold and visual imagery, and the young child’s exploratory actions into the world through puppetry. With controls aptly handled by Alexander and Meyyappan, an inquisitive, lifelike cloth puppet makes its way around the stage, climbing onto a desk pulling pins from the butterfly shadowbox, finally tearing the butterfly in two. Butterfly’s rage sends him flying across the floor. Alexander and Meyyappan disappear as the puppeteers, much like those in Nick Stafford’s adaptation of War Horse, but their acting does not. They are the doll in the dream walking across the sleeping Butterfly; they also become the curious child making its way into a new world. Nothing else exists.

The haunting and expressive puppet and detailed dolls are attributed to the skillful Gavin Glover. Neil Warmington has developed a fluid set with three bakers’ racks on wheels, first creating the kite-makers’ workspace and later transforming it into their home and a workshop for Nabokov. Also credited with costuming, Warmington could have use a lighter touch with a softer-soled shoe. Lighting is limited and sketchy, and shadows, while important, left the actors in the dark too often. However, it is the inspiring original music by David Paul Jones, married to the choreography of Darren Brownlie, that is the undercurrent of Butterfly.

The word creative is particularly limiting if used to describe Meyyappan, especially given the way he sees and delivers life onto the stage, and Butterfly is more than the typical story of courting, lovers and jealousy. However, what becomes clear is that he is a master storyteller. Expressing all of these emotions while conveying complicated humans without words is what propels Butterfly to soar.

Part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, Butterfly runs through May 14 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues. Evening performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

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