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Puppetry Through the Ages Beckons in Long Beach Show

December 28, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

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.

Crowded together and unidentified as to personal history or narrative interaction, most of the non-Western puppets take on the remote, carefully preserved air of an expensive foreign doll collection. The Chinese, Indonesian, Cambodian and Thai shadow puppets are at least arranged in vivid interactions behind a translucent cloth, as they would be in a real performance. But without assistance, it isn't possible to "read" a tableau from India the way we do an American scene with a devilish fellow making an appearance through a trapdoor near the body of a dead gentlewoman.

Because these little personages are displayed in the still, mummified context of museum objects, they are most interesting when they come closest to resembling works of sculpture--like a long-necked wooden woman and long-eared, cloth-wrapped horse from some unspecified area of Africa or Tony Sarg's elegantly expressive Walrus and Carpenter of 1939.

But despite the massive labors of guest curator Allan G. Cook, a single live Punch and Judy slugfest would have been a more eloquent spokesman for puppetry than all the crowded displays a museum could hold.

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