The mark of a good puppet show isn't that you don't see the strings. It is that you do see the strings, and still buy the illusion.
There are even moments in the Compagnie Philippe Genty's new show at the Westwood Playhouse, "Desirs Parade," when the strings seem a trick to throw the spectator off the track. The puppeteer seems to be guiding the puppet, but what if it's just the opposite?
The effect is particularly spooky during an early number called "Chrysalis." The inspiration here may be "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." An undulating brown-paper package ingests a full-size woman (Agnes Neel) and gives birth to an exotic half-size topless female marionette.
She is a nymphet: beautiful, passive, perverse. (At times there are two of her.) Use me, she seems to say; but don't expect to know me. I may have a will of my own, or I may be an appliance.
If she doesn't physically dominate her four keepers (Neel, Alain Clement, Patrick Henniquau, Emmanuel Plassard), she does obsess them, as if she were a shared fantasy.
At one point she turns into a spider, all elbows. At another point she removes her face, to reveal a second one, white as chalk. At the climax she becomes a huge cellophane moth, with an abbreviated life span.
The piece held the eye and will linger in the mind. Was it an allegory of the star-making process? The glitzy look of the puppet suggested it might be. But something deeper was registering here, some realization of the ties--strings?--between captor and captive.
The mannequin, in any case, came to life. So did the package that swallowed the woman. "Puppet" in this show has many meanings. It can mean a giant orange beach chair that won't stay folded. It can mean a vacuum-cleaner bag that swells up and becomes the moon, complete with astronaut.
It can mean a man. Alain Clement plays a chap in a trench coat who can only get so far across the stage before someone in the wings jerks his reins and he has to go back. Poor fellow! But when Agnes Neel uncouples him, the results are not encouraging. The moral here is very clear: Man is born free and is everywhere in chains, by choice.
It should be clear that "Desirs Parade" isn't particularly a show for children. It does offer some good-humored material (the beach chair), but its truest moments are dark, as in a number involving a steamer trunk and a disassembled puppet who comes back to haunt the people who did him in.
This vignette approaches Grand Guignol--and then backs off, possibly because it doesn't want to give nightmares to such children as are in the audience. It would be better if kids were kept out entirely, allowing the show to be as macabre as it would like to be. It's fine to have the Compagnie Philippe Genty in town for Christmas, but the holiday that would best suit them is Halloween. What a job they could do with Poe!
Performances are Tuesdays - Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.; two shows on New Year's Eve, at 7 and 10. Tickets $17.50-$25. Closing performance: Jan. 10. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; (213) 410-1062.