Reviewed by Will Stackman
For the 16th time, at the beginning of summer, the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford CT played host to a weeklong conference of intensive puppetry culminating in more than three hours of performances. An outgrowth of the Institute of Puppetry Arts, founded by Margo Rose, who helped found the O'Neill itself, and Bart Roccoberton, now head of the University of Connecticut's world-renowned puppetry arts program, this conference brings together puppeteers from college and arts backgrounds to work on projects with the invited guest artists, with smaller efforts from previous attendees who've been designated as emerging artists, and on their own short pieces. This year, Terry Lee from Wales and Bernd Ogrodnik from Iceland presented two very different projects. Lee, founder of Green Ginger, which began as a street theatre and which now seeks to give voice to social issues, tried to give a sharper edge to Dylan Thomas' dramatic poem "Under Milk Wood," using grotesque puppets from his past efforts, backed by projected ink wash drawings by John Forester Clark, R.A. The puppetry and mask work was fully proficient, but the shortened script never found a center and the cross-cutting between the numerous characters was slowed by the makeshift layout of the show. No particular point emerged and the grotesque figures seemed to be playing the material rather than inhabiting it. Perhaps this project would work better as video.
Ogrodnik's "Life of a Tree," on the other hand, was more enlightening. A puppeteer who worked in New England and upstate New York before returning to his home, this piece, which will be further developed as a piece for Iceland's National Theatre, used simple object-style puppetry to expand on growth and the change of seasons. Seven performers created the seasons from masks depicting the winds, a tree from twisted sheets of muslim, two small people from smaller masks and cloth, plus a squirrel made from a rag who plants the seed which becomes the tree, and birds done simply as handmime. Live music was done by Eric Brooks and the director. The participants' range of movement skills was carefully used; it's clear that a fully professional company will be able to take this work further.
Marionettes have always gotten attention at this conference, since the Roses, Rufus and Margo, began working together touring Tony Sarg shows, became famous for their own productions and were largely behind the success of the "Howdy Doody Show." Their son Jim Rose, former head of Antioch's theatre program, along with Fred Thompson, a former Connecticut state college professor, have been joined by longtime cabaret performer, Phillip Huber, who was central to the marionette work on "Being John Malkovich." The three have developed a program which allows participants to bring their current figures to learn how to get the most out of them, which often requires extensive modification and often new controls. When the efforts were showcased, the hit of the evening was Jan Grimaldi's "Tipsy Arietta," a bit of comic operetta.
This year's Emerging Artists included Marc Weiner's "Eeks-travaganza," a dark comic sketch which featured Bobbi Nidzgorski, one of the original IPA grads who's now the Conference's year-round manager, as the manipulator of its troll-like hero. One of the many UConn alumni involved, Zee Briggs continued her comic social criticism with "Pussy & Cordelia," and Ulysses Jones with Megan McNerney showed a complex "Group Etude" movement/mask piece which will be part of his M.F.A. project at UConn. The participants' projects ranged from UConn grad Ceili Clemens' snail "Shilliki Buki" who escapes his shell to Amanda Maddock's object-puppet mountain climbing raw eggs, none of whom made it to the top. But the close of the evening brought another grad, former Artistic Director Richard Termine back with Marianne Kubik in her mask piece, "Facade" where the two began as mannequins on a wedding cake. He lost his mask and spent the next few minutes dealing with her rigid form in a recap of the old vaudeville speciality of the "living doll." The pair have probably rehearsed the piece more than a week. However long it took the results were inspirational
At the end of the first half, current director Pam Aciero took a moment to memorialize Nikki Tilroe, a mime and puppeteer who'd taught for several years for the conference, then Ceili Clemens recreated the shadow piece she'd created for the memorial program held last fall. The O'Neill Puppetry Conference has had and continues to attract the efforts of some of this country's best puppet artists, as the retrospective of their efforts held in NY several seasons ago showed. As the Theatre Center continues to reorganize, it's hoped that this effort will continue to develop and not be limited by unrelated problems.