It's strange to think that Shari Lewis' smirking Lambchop may have something in common with the turreted silhouettes of Indonesian shadow puppets. But both share the combination of handicraft and theater that have attracted audiences to puppetry for thousands of years.
"Of Puppets, Shadows and Strings," at the Long Beach Museum of Art through Jan. 10, is an attempt at recalling the perennial allure of the form with a bewildering assortment of hobnobbing puppets, marionettes and ventriloquists' dummies from around the world.
Pirates and hula girls, circus performers and kings, Don Quixote and Rip van Winkle, Tinkerbell and the Tin Man, dot-eyed Mexican puppets and 19th-Century armor-plated Sicilian marionettes, Japanese Bunraku puppets with their porcelain-like heads and elaborate costumes, a red velvet Romanian "chanteuse"--all are mute testimony to the variety of human types, costume detail and facial caricature developed by individual artisans in different cultures.
Missing are sound, lights and action, however (not to mention the lap and voice of Edgar Bergen). Removed from dramatic context, the Western puppets look like old dolls, well-worn and touchingly familiar. Whether the subject is a black dancer or an Irish cop or a mustachioed Saracen warrior, it tends to be a stereotype. As in the allied field of cartooning, the detailed craftsmanship of the past yields to bland, one-dimensional creations for TV age kiddies.