Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Stage is Set for Puppets

Don't be alarmed, but there is a great American puppet boom heading our way, a marionette mania that's as irresistible as an outbreak of giggles at recess. The exceptional exhibition "Puppets, Art & Entertainment" is about to arrive, brought to the Oakland Museum for its exclusive West Coast presentation Feb. 11 through May 8 thanks to major grants from Mervyn's/Dayton Hudson Foundation and from the Women's Board of the OMA, with additional support from The Clorox Company Foundation.

This puppetry madness breeds only the most benign vibrations, and it's a broad-based obsession. As I observed the enthusiastic crowds on the exhibition's final day in Detroit not long ago, no age or persuasion seemed missing--grandmas and grandpas, moms, dads and moppets all were mesmerized by the stunning display, assembled by the Puppeteers of America, that has been touring the country for more than two years.

Ever since the first American Puppetry Conference in Detroit in 1936 led to the founding of a national organization, the Puppeteers of America has been beguiling generations of fans. This non-profit corporation expresses its dedication to preserving and developing the art of puppetry through an annual National Festival as well as by sponsoring performances, workshops and exhibitions. It has more than 3,000 professional members and is affiliated internationally with UNIMA, l'Union Internationale de la Marionette, a UNESCO branch with members in 55 nations.

In fact, "Puppets, Art & Entertainment" opened in 1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as part of the 13th quadrennial Congress of UNIMA, which has been celebrating puppetry worldwide since 1929. So the wave of wonderful wackiness goes far beyond our shores: you might say it's an international unconspiracy.

Although it is Kermit's familiar froggy likeness that graces the Preface page of the paperback catalog that accompanies the exhibition, it's his longtime associate Jim Henson, the president of UNIMA-USA, Inc., who explains the show's purpose. "Our continent," he notes, "was formed by different groups of people coming from many countries throughout the world, living and working together and mutually sharing their ethnic backgrounds. Puppetry in North America has benefited from the diversification of our society and the contributions made by all the different forms of puppetry from around the world.

"Today, through television and film, people around the world are able to share each other's contributions to the field of puppetry," he adds. "It is our hope that this exhibit will be a tribute to our international heritage and help us to further explore the role puppetry plays in cultural life, not only in the past and present, but also in the future." (Kermit must agree, since he seems to be smiling.)

When Henson says diversity, he means diversity. It's astonishing how many forms puppetry has taken over the centuries. The earliest in North America are some hand modeled and molded clay statues with articulated limbs dating between 300 and 600 A.D. made by Indian tribes in what is now Mexico.

And some time before 1590 a Spanish friar reported seeing a Toltec medicine man make a tiny figure dance in the palm of his hand. Sixty-five years later a European immigrant to Canada saw an Iroquois medicine man use a cleverly designed puppet squirrel to demonstrate that his herbs were powerful enough to bring the dead back to life. So puppetry in North America begins less in fun than in the efforts of pre-industrial societies to deal with the tough issues of keeping on living.

The Hopi Indians of northern Arizona still use their puppets in such serious ways. In their water serpent ceremony, they try to appease Palolokon because all liquid--water, sap, blood--is thought to be under his control. He is believed to inhabit subterranean seas, the surface waters of which he uses as windows to observe people and events in the world above. When he doesn't like what he sees, earthquakes, floods, and droughts ensue. In the desert, of course, water is vital--too little or too much of it spells the difference between life and death. Understandably, Hopi puppeteers are among the most respected members of their tribe.

On the other hand, Hawaiian puppets were used to satirize local customs, politics and personalities. These one-third life size hand puppets were made from local materials, the heads carved from a soft wood and costumes from a bark cloth called mahuna. One puppet master handled all the characters, but an accompanying musical combo would interrupt the action to shout out reactions to what was going on, sometimes even interrupting what was being mimed to the audience. In one famous skit, the boastful warrior Maka-ku is teased for his chutzpah as he tries to match his bragging with credible performances in javelin throwing, sling shooting and stone throwing--a kind of early Hawaiian triathlon.

Of course, North American puppetry has also been enriched by all the energy and traditions of European artists. By the 19th century that art was going gigantic, featuring spectacular historical dramas with knights in gleaming armor, hundreds of 80- to 200-pound figures simulating enormous battles with fireworks and gallons of beet-juice blood splashing about. The Manteo family still stages the legends of Charlemagne and Constantine using four or five foot tall combatants. These puppet extravaganzas are played as serials and can take as long as six months to finally unreel!

Another phase of this protean art involves staging classical plays with puppets. For example, Professor Peter Arnott of Tufts University has been touting productions of Greek classics like Euripides' Medea and Sophocles' Oedipus the King. In Plays without People (1964), Arnott argues that some spectators prefer historically accurate stylizations on an obviously artificial puppet stage to real live people who are harder to relate to a distant time or place.

During the Depression, American puppetry got an important boost from the U.S. government. The Federal Theater Project's puppet section employed 350 performers and technicians in adaptations of well-known stories like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretl, or Sleeping Beauty. Putting on more than 100 shows a week to audiences of thousands kept artists from starving and the art of puppetry from declining. Eventually, however, funds were shifted from performance troupes to educational and therapeutic programs--although it's clear that all good puppet theater is both therapeutic and educational, as essayist Michael Malkin notes in the catalog.

"It is therapeutic because it provides socially accepted avenues and arenas for the discovery, expression and release of our innermost attitudes and feelings," he writes. "It educates us to the extent that it manipulates and remolds our emotions in order to let us see problems and events with fresh insights." So we come full circle--from medicine mean to a medicinal mania.

Serious, but never solemn; fun, but not frivolous. That's why puppetry so easily bridges any generation gap. For the old, it provides a chance to re-enter the mysterious innocence of the young. And for the young, it offers a non-threatening way to simulate being in the grown-up's world.

No matter how you approach it philosophically, "Puppets, Art & Entertainment" is a delight to see. There are hourly live performances, video documentaries, and scores of the most interesting puppets you'll ever lay eyes on. Indeed, one of the most enchanting aspects of your visit is the chance to see old puppet friends, make a few new ones, relish characters borrowed from other media, and enjoy the bluesiness of our multi-ethnic heritage.

For me, growing up in the 1930's, Sunday night meant Charlie McCarthy and the rest of Edgar Bergen's zany radio dummies. Radio was a medium for our own mind to grow in--so it's a kick to see what Charlie actually looks like up close, without the hum of the airwaves to distract you from scrutinizing him. (Hmmm. More wooden than he sounded. And Mortimer Snerd, Daaaaaw. He shore do look dumb, don't you think. Huh? Me, er, THINK?)

And one of the joys of sliding helplessly into middle age is Nostalgia. Well, there I was growing up in Detroit but always spending my summers at Lake Huron--so I missed the fact that the Detroit Institute of Arts was the national leader in having its puppets and its symphony perform in concert together. Those superb larger-than-life characters from Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring are a part of my childhood I had to wait till I reached 55 to encounter.

And when it comes to borrowings, how about those towering giants from Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. Ominous. Or he Super Pupps from an obscure Italian opera that each require several people to function.

As for bluesiness, look around and see how just about everybody has gotten into the puppeteering act. Hopi and Zuni Indians, ghetto blacks, descendants of Sicilian immigrants, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans all take part in this United Nations of entertainment, doing everything from educational TV to slick vaudeville to social action theater.

Some things old, some new, some borrowed, some bluesy--all in "Puppets, Art & Entertainment" for the enjoying.

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