Theatre history is glutted with practitioners and theorists who hold puppets and performing objects up as an ideal, as the utopian future of acting and theatre itself. Craig had the übermarionette, Kleist the marionette theatre (and fencing bears—natch), and Moholy-Nagy had the mechanized eccentric. Many critics working today discuss new technologies in animation and virtual reality as the new wave of this idealization.
But these theories usually concern themselves with the actor alone—the puppet is the performer void of ego, emotional and physical error. It may be entirely controlled. And this has nothing to do with why I return happily to Labapalooza at St. Ann’s every year.
For me, what makes puppet theatre some of the most interesting and innovative work is its reworking of the very materials conventionally associated with performance. Actors may become puppets, but scenes become miniaturized and manipulated, attention is drawn to unexpected elements, and the use of metaphor and metonymy is at its most considered and refined. And this year was no exception.
The Lab’s emphasis on the works-in-progressness is wonderful as well, exceptional even for most performance the public is let in on. I only saw one program this year with four incredibly diverse pieces.
The most stunning for me was Daniel Burnam’s and Erica Livingston’s “Interference and Collapse,” a piece most improbably about the murder of Sam Cooke, childhood memories, and quantum physics. Burnam and Livingston remain behind a glorified DJ booth for most of the performance, where the turntables function not only as soundtrack, but also as stages. Each mini-set is divided into three, with each division symbolizing the same place in a slightly different dimension. The very possibility of quantum theory has made the question of “What if…” almost more tragic and mournful. Not only do we make bad decisions, but, in a slightly different place, we have made the correct ones. The course of our histories radically alter, but we have no access to them. What if Cooke had lived well into old age? The duo plow through the text, Burnam with the cold pat of a scientist, and Livingston with barely concealed childlike frivolity under a veneer of professionalism. All their scenes are augmented by video camera’s projecting the tiny, revolving action up on high.
Retta Leaphart’s “Far from the Tree” is a sweet rumination on childhood as well, only from the much more direct perspective of growing up in Montana. The protagonist is a large mason jar with limbs and head as bugs and secrets are collected and released from within.
The hilarious “The Pigeoning” by Robin Frohardt was clearly adored by the audience, the most basic and stunning example of the audience’s almost desperate desire to empathize with these objects. Here, we follow Frank, expertly played by as many as four puppeteers at once, a schlubby office drone with an irrational (or highly rational, depending on where you stand) fear of pigeons. That is, until the day he realizes that the pigeons are communicating with him. His world falls apart, and the audience erupts into great cheers for the slightly morbid conclusion. But Frank is happy, and so are we.
Last and certainly not least is Joe Silovsky’s “Send for the Million Men.” I’ve written about Joe in general and about his last piece here, and he brings Stanley the Robot back to help him narrate a (piece of) the story of infamous anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. In his usual puppetry-by-way-of-vaudeville style, we’re treated to a messy and discombobulated lecture that utilizes transparencies, opaque projectors, and a cadre of controls for Silovsky to play show-and-tell with. Joe’s continuing efforts to layer and nuance his works while maintaining his charming sense of humor and irony constitute the playfully sophisticated work that I love from this genre.
One hundred years after the publication of Craig’s ideas concerning the übermarionette, we are no closer to realizing it, if you ask me. And I like it that way. Vivent les blagues des marionettes!