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Puppet masters aren't toying around

Los Angeles has a small but committed experimental puppet community intent on redefining the genre. The work the artists present is often emotional and wondrous.

May 17, 2009|Holly Myers

A marionette lies limp, facedown, on a box the size of an upturned milk crate, in the middle of a crowded room. Strains of Louis Armstrong issue from a source hidden inside the box, and slowly the marionette begins to crawl. He has few distinguishing features to speak of, but it's clear in an instant that he's seen better days. He moves slowly, achingly; he never makes it up off his knees. Is he dying? Drunk? Heartbroken? Stricken with some kind of curse? He crawls from one end of the box to the other, transfixing a circle of gathered onlookers. It is a short and arduous journey that seems to encompass all the sorrow of mankind.

Then the figure goes limp again and the mantle of sorrow vanishes. What had been a man on the edge of an abyss is suddenly just a few scraps of fabric and wood, held precariously together with string.

It is a routine that puppeteer Eli Presser has been performing for a decade, usually on the street, guerrilla style, in the hope of inspiring a sense of mystery -- the feeling, in his words, "of some other world coming into ours." On this particular evening in March, performing alongside more than a dozen others at a benefit for a puppetry organization called Automata, he may have been preaching to the choir, but the effect was no less wondrous.

Founded in 2004 by Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson, Automata is an itinerate nonprofit on its way to becoming a hub for L.A.'s small but vibrant experimental puppetry community. It is a subset of the city's artistic life that relatively few are aware of but one that's rapidly coming into its own -- and producing some of the most innovative and enchanting work of late.

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'Radically redefine'

The productions tend to be intimate in scale, elaborately crafted and tenderly executed. The artists hail as often from the visual arts and experimental film as from theater or performance. They make use of puppetry's traditional forms -- marionettes, hand puppets, rod puppets, bunraku, toy theater, shadow play, contestoria -- but often in conjunction with other media, such as video, animation, installation and music. Automata captures the spirit of the impulse succinctly, declaring its intention to "radically redefine and re-contextualize the notion of puppet theater."

The night of the benefit offered a captivating cross section of the work: Paul Zaloom appeared with "Punch and Jimmy," a hilariously irreverent gay adaptation of the classic routine; Laura Heit performed one in her delightful series of "matchbox shows" -- so named because they are literally small enough to fit into a matchbox -- with footage of the action projected on a screen behind her; Kate Dollenmayer patiently hand cranked her film, "Walking in an Imaginary Landscape," through a single lens apparatus for one viewer at a time; and Geiser presented a diorama the size of a small aquarium in which puppets moved among sculptural elements and tiny video projections from her upcoming project, "The Reptile Under the Flowers."

Geiser's show, which premieres in its entirety next weekend at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, is an especially ambitious example of the painstaking complexity these productions tend to involve. A father-son narrative inspired by the lead character in Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman," the work is presented as a walk-through diorama performance of about an hour involving puppetry, peep shows, shadow plays, mechanical performing objects and miniature projections, with 15 individual stations and the assistance of no fewer than 14 puppeteers. For all its "radicality," however, these works are often strikingly sincere. Puppetry is difficult, labor intensive and hopelessly unprofitable (at least on this scale). Few arrive at it but by pure passion, and that passion is infectious, engaging audiences to a degree rarely encountered in, say, the gallery world. It may be also that there is something fundamentally poignant about puppets that, when skillfully harnessed, bewitches puppeteer and audiences alike: their miniature scale, their ties to childhood, their relation to the body, their imitation of life, their evocation of death.

"The idea that the puppet is just a fragile provisional being that you have to kind of hold together all the time seems relevant, somehow, to how I think of people," Simpson says. "How they hold their own identities together and how they present and think of their own coherence or lack of coherence, or the effort that goes into any kind of coherence."

It is the poignancy, she adds, "of watching something that is fragile but that with extreme effort maintains a sort of life. I continue to find that really moving and interesting."

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A distinct history

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