The third performance in the Puppet Showplace's "Puppets at Night" series of contemporary theatrical puppetry for adult audiences took place at the Cambridge Multicultural Art Center, located in the renovated Bullfinch Court House. The theatrical space is the tall and ornate former Hall of Records in the old Superior Court Building, especially good for movement oriented pieces where exposed lighting from the surrounding balcony becomes part of the design. This abstract piece was premiered during the International Puppetry Festival in New England a year ago last fall and played a short run at La Mama last spring.
Based on an ancient philosophical query, "Butterfly Dreams" is a series of vignettes using direct contact puppets to explore questions of identity. Legend has it that a sage awoke from dreaming. He was struck by the question, "Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly asleep, dreaming he is a man". Hua Hua Zhang begins with a sleeping figure floating amid dream images until he metamorphoses into a giant insect and flies off. In subsequent dream moments he's first seen dozing while waiting for rice to boil and imagining himself a mighty warrior as well as the Monkey King.
Ms. Zhang combines her early training in traditional Chinese dance and her experience as a rod puppeteer to perform a giant butterfly with translucent plastic wings, followed by the philosopher, who changes into the warrior. She draws on her MFA from the Puppetry program at UConn to create these characters using only hand-held masks and a large piece of stretchy material. She's joined by fellow UConn MFA David Regan who changes places with her to become Monkey. The show moves on to further moments abetted by two more UConn puppeteers, Ceilli Clemens and Faye Dupras who helped develop the show and serve as traditional stagehands in black and secondary puppeteers. The continuous music track for this wordless piece was composed and performed by award winning New York composer, Bruno Gremo, using electronically altered traditional Chinese instrumentation and natural sounds.
Both Regan and Zhang have solo pieces. Her most impressive is a evocation of a doppelganger using a mask in on hand, another on her own face and a flowing costume. The two characters war with each other and ultimately expire together. Regan, who plays an involved puppeteer/servant in several pieces, has a solo where he struggles to learn to fly.
Both these puppetmasters, beside being consumate performers, are amassing impressive design credits working with other puppet production companies. While in town for "Butterfly Dreams", Regan performed at the Puppet Showplace in a Crabgrass Theatre fairytale show which he also designed. Crabgrass incidentally belongs to Bonnie Hall and Jamie Keithline, also UConn grads. Ms. Zhang, who designed the "Sad Dad" sequence for PBS's "Between the Lions", stayed in town to do her "East Meets West" family show at the Children's Museum. Director Bart Roccoberton, who took over UConn's program from its founder Frank Ballard, by offering a place to learn and grow for such artists, has almost singlehandedly created a force in contemporary theatre which will resonate beyond showier efforts. Roccoberton mentored the creation of this show and designed its lighting and effects.
The Puppet Showplace's previous presentation, around Thanksgiving, was Figures of Speech's "She-Who-Loves", also done in Bullfinch Square. From Freeport Maine, the Farrell's who run this company are also UConn grads from Ballard's program. In addition, Figures of Speech is central to the International Puppetry Festival. "She-Who-Loves" is a sophisticated reworking of the Native American legend of the blue bonnet flower done in a style based on Japanese Noh theatre with live musical accompaniment. John Farrell, who designed the show after studying in Japan appeared last year in Boston in the company's "Beanstalk Variations". Carol Farrell is the primary performer in this piece, joined at the end by their daughter, Delia Farrell. The piece combines contemporary puppetry and object theatre with masks and costumes in the Japanese tradition.
Another company central to the biennial festival is the award-winning Sandglass Theatre from Putney, Vermont. Their current work, "One Way Street", presented in association with the New Repertory Theatre, opened the Puppets at Night season in late October. This work, an evocation of the critic, Walter Benjamin, was created by Eric Bass and Inez Zeller-Bass with Merrill Garbus, who performs this piece with them. Again, direct contact puppetry is combined with symbolic objects and technical theatre to weave a show whose effect is not on the page but chiefly in the performing. If this series suggests anything about the future of puppetry in the contemporary theatre, it is that the form will continue to explore those reaches of the psyche best reached by design and movement, by exploring our relationship to objects of life .
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