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LOOK, MA, NO STRINGS : Magical Moonshine Theatre Combines Puppetry and Other Life Forms

August 11, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County

"I've got no strings to hold

me down, to make me fret, or

make me frown."


If you don't count the cricket and the babe in fairy wings, puppeteer Michael Nelson and the wooden-headed Pinocchio actually have a lot in common.

Both spent time hanging around a woodworker's shop before breaking into show biz, and both find strings--literal and figurative--a real turnoff.

Founder of the touring puppet troupe Magical Moonshine Theatre, Nelson and wife Valerie have spent much of the past 15 years bouncing around the globe, bringing to life an international collection of folk tales and myths with their own blend of puppetry, masks and original music.

Not surprisingly, the Nelsons don't attach any strings to their puppets either. Ranging from three to seven feet in height, the wood, foam and fabric puppets (which the family and a small staff make themselves in a Napa studio) are manipulated through a series of rods and sticks by the couple, who are dressed in black and in full view of the audience. When his school schedule allows, their 11-year-old son, Benjamin, performs with them. During the show, the puppeteer's facial expressions reflect and enhance the puppet's actions, adding an extra measure of theatricality to the stories, said Michael Nelson. In some cases, the humans become characters themselves, donning custom-made masks and interacting with the puppets.

This month, the family will visit Orange County for three productions of its "Animal Folktales of the Americas" show, Friday and Saturday at the Fullerton Museum Center (see accompanying information) and on Aug. 19 at Anaheim's Pearson Park Amphitheatre (7:30 p.m. at Sycamore and Lemon streets; $2 for adults, $1 for children 12 and under; (714) 254-5274).

The idea of blurring the line between puppet and puppeteer has become increasingly popular in Europe, where this kind of entertainment has historically been as much for adults as for children, if not more so. But it is infrequently seen in the United States, said Michael Nelson, who added that his family shows abroad typically draw a large number of adults.

"In this country, we sometimes see this kind of blending of puppet and mask and with actors and music in performance art," he said, speaking by phone from his office outside Napa, "but it's pretty unusual in family theater like this.

"I'd be willing to bet most kids in the audience don't notice us at all," he observed, laughing. "But in adults' minds, there's a kind of synthesis that comes from our faces mirroring the emotions of the puppets that's very unique."

A former cabinetmaker, Nelson fell into puppetry in 1979 while recuperating from a job-related injury. He put together a small puppet show for the preschool where his wife was teaching, and the local response was so positive that within a few years, he pitched the cabinetry business all together. A few years after that, his wife quit teaching to join him on the road.

Since its formation, the Magical Moonshine Theatre has performed in 12 countries and in seven languages. In 1987, Nelson was chosen to represent the United States at the international Puppet Institute in Charleville-Mezieres, France, where he studied under the late Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets.

When Benjamin was born in 1984, he was quickly assimilated into the act (his birth is listed in the company's history between the troupe's appearance at a national puppet festival and Michael's stint as a California Arts Council Artist in Residence). At age 2, he was doing "a little opening bit" before his parents' performance; by 6, he was performing as a puppeteer.

There are 12 different multicultural stories in the "Animal Folktales" repertoire, from which the Nelsons will select two or three for their shows in Anaheim and Fullerton. Among the possible choices: a Br'er Rabbit story, a South American folk tale, a Native American coyote story that mixes elements from Navajo, Pima and San Juan traditions, and a Hmong story that features a Southeast Asian style of shadow puppetry.

The performers have simple criteria when selecting the stories they will perform.

"I like humor in a story, so we do a lot of trickster stories--the coyote tales and the Br'er Rabbit stories," explained Nelson. "And we look for stories that are intelligent and universal. But we don't really have specific morals we're trying to push. We let the story speak for itself."



What: Magical Moonshine Theatre presents "Animal Folktales of the Americas."

When: Friday, Aug. 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 13, at 2 p.m.

Where: Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton.

Whereabouts: Orange (57) Freeway to Chapman Avenue, Fullerton exit; go west; turn left onto Pomona Avenue (one block east of Harbor Boulevard).

Wherewithal: $10 for adults; $8 for museum members; $6 for children under 12. Includes admission to FMC's "Rites of Passage" exhibit.

Where to call: (714) 738-6545.



Audrey II, the houseplant with a 'tude and a taste for raw meat, takes root at Huntington Beach High School beginning Friday, Aug. 12, (through Aug. 21) in a Musical Youth Artists' Repertory Theatre production of "Little Shop of Horrors." $8-$20. (800) 400-2985.


A 70-member cast for the Orange County Children's Theatre stages this Broadway musical based on the life of circus legend P.T. Barnum on Friday, Aug. 12, through Aug. 21 at the Westminster Cultural Arts Center, 7571 Westminster Blvd. $5. (714) 502-2244.


Drummer Kenny Endo presents a solo evening of classical Japanese taiko drumming in a family program Saturday, Aug. 13, at 7 and 9 p.m. in the courtyard of the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. $4; seating is first come, first served. (714) 493-1752.

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