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Puppets are people too

A surprising number of New York shows are supplementing their productions with puppets, enriching the theatrical experience with an element of freshness and purity that live actors can't match.

October 05, 2003|Stuart Miller | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — From Pinocchio to Kermit the Frog to ... Joyce Carol Oates? Yes, it's a brave new world for puppets, a theatrical zeitgeist where suddenly it seems every playwright is grabbing a sock or some foam, buttons and a few of those cute wide-open eyes. In this universe, puppets sing about racism, debate free will and predeterminism, delve into dysfunctional families and even reflect on aging and mortality.

"People are always looking for something new. For mainstream audiences, puppets are fresh and make audiences say, 'Hey, wow,' " says puppeteer Basil Twist, who is best known for more experimental pieces like "Symphonie Fantastique" but is now designing puppets for Paula Vogel's family drama "The Long Christmas Ride Home."

Puppets are not entirely new to Broadway and off-Broadway stages; there's the giant, murderous plant Audrey II in the revival of "Little Shop of Horrors," last season's life-size rag doll puppets of Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman in "Imaginary Friends" and, of course, the king of all puppets, the long-running "Lion King." But rarely have so many small, intimate puppets played so many fully developed, integral characters.

"It is harder and harder to get audiences to suspend their disbelief for actors," says Craig Wright, whose drama "Recent Tragic Events" at Playwrights Horizons features a sock puppet incarnation of novelist Oates. "But puppets sidestep the whole problem -- we can stop pretending these are real people and get on to the discourse at hand."

The recent puppet invasion took off this summer with the Broadway transfer of the hit musical "Avenue Q," with its lovable Muppet-esque characters who sing catchy, un-Muppet-esque ditties like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet Is for Porn" and "Schadenfreude."

"I love it when people are actually moved by the show even though the characters are really made of cloth," says Jeff Whitty, who wrote the book for "Avenue Q."

Like the human thespians who share the stage, these inanimate objects are stretching their "acting" muscles by taking on darker, more dramatic roles. In "Events," Oates crashes in on a blind date the day after Sept. 11 and joins in as the characters cope with the tragedy and argue about whether we are truly free in our actions and choices.

Vogel's "Long Ride Home," which opens Nov. 4 at the Vineyard Theatre, features puppets playing the children in the back of the car on that drive. (During the car ride, the children are accidentally hurtled into their futures; the actors handling the puppets also play the grown-up versions of those children.)

And at the Signature Theatre in December comes the world premiere of "The Regard Evening," an update of Bill Irwin's classic comedy "Regard of Flight," which used classic vaudeville and clown bits to mock both the theater world's "New Vaudevillians" and their pretentious critics. In the second act of the new play, in which characters from "Regard of Flight" are seen 20 years later, Irwin will use a puppet of himself to explore his own aging process.

Irwin, who actually plays a marionette in one scene of his current production, "Harlequin Studies," was initially struck by the simple idea of using a puppet to make jokes about the concept of contemplating oneself but has realized that "puppeteering is a complicated craft" and is now "wary" about how this venture will turn out.

"Great puppetry is very compelling," he says, "but bad puppetry is extremely irritating."

'Pure' and 'primal'

Despite the perils of poor puppetry, the appeal of animating these handfuls of material seems irresistible. "Our society is so digital and virtual, and puppets are a classical way of expressing theatricality and humanity," says Colleen Werthmann, who dons the Oates puppet in "Events." (She also plays a silent human character, Nancy.)

Werthmann was originally ambivalent about using a sock puppet in a 9/11 play but ultimately felt the puppet gave the play's themes more richness and power. "Puppets trigger childlike reactions even in sophisticated audiences and open a window into the irrational."

Beyond the reaction to our impersonal high-tech world is another factor, Vogel says. "In the turmoil and ferment leading up to World War I, there was a huge renaissance in puppeteering. I don't think it's an accident that in periods of great terror we seek a metaphor, a level of abstraction about the human experience."

Ultimately, the playwrights, puppeteers and actors all explain the puppets' appeal with the same words: puppets are "pure" and tap into something "primal." Ironically, they say, a puppet's artificiality makes it more real, more universal because it strips away the layer of having an actor portraying a character. "Avenue Q" director Jason Moore says audiences instinctively know that an actor has a real name and a real life outside the theater. "The puppet has no filter; it is a pure form of expression," he says.

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