Sunday, January 18, 2015

Puppetry Week: #7 "Everyone can't be Derek Mantini"

Moses (photo by Lorna Palmer)
    Most art—movies, books, plays, paintngs—is entirely forgettable. You experience it, shrug, and never think about it again.
    A great work lingers, however.
    Or even a very good work. I'm thinking of "Being John Malcovich." I haven't seen the Spike Jonze movie since it came out 15 years ago. Yet so many moments resonate. Floor 7 1/2 in the Merti-Flemmer Building, with its five foot ceiling, such a perfect metaphor for the cramped imposition of business life upon the human spirit. The small door that leads, improbably, in to the mind of John Malcovich, languidly ordering towels over the telephone, the epitome of haughtiness and celebrity, free to obsess over the smallest details of his success.
    And John Cusack, the unemployed puppeteer. Performing a complex classical set piece on the streets of New York, his delicate marionettes pantomiming frustrated ecstasy on either sides of a wall, sublime, erotic, earning him the applause of a punch in the mouth by an enraged passerby, offended for the sake of his young daughter. 
    Cusack, sprawled on the couch, watching Derek Mantini, "the greatest puppeteer in the history of the world," performing "The Belle of Amherst," operating a 60-foot Emily Dickinson puppet  off a water tower, a pure image of crassness rewarded.
   "Everyone can't be Derek Mantini," his wife says, trying to comfort him.
    Which is why I'm finishing out puppet week, despite complaints from the cheap seats. "Is it because you're getting too many clicks, too many readers?" my brother insinuated. "A way to thin the herd?" No, Puppetry Week is a concept, and, having invoked it, I'll ride it to the end. No point in bailing out now. If you're tired, well, tomorrow I tweak the pope, rolling up my sleeve and shoving my bare arm into the cage of the Opus Dei crowd. Come back then.
     And I have a duty. I'd feel wrong, cowardly, if I didn't applaud Blind Summit's "The Table," which opened Friday night at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and is running next week as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. 
     "The Table" almost defies description or, more precisely, will be impoverished by my attempts to describe it. We are presented with Moses, the Biblical patriarch, but Moses as a two and a half foot tall crabby, randy British homunculus with a cardboard head whose world is defined by a table, at first. 
     Moses is operated by three performers in black, in the Japanese bunraku tradition—Mark Down, the director, who had Moses left arm and bum, Sean Garratt, who had the other arm, and Laura Caldow, who had the difficult task of working the feet (yoga helps, she explained afterward).
    Though they don't cover their faces, the better to interact with the audience in a performance that is more vaudeville than high art. They bring a surprising physicality to the puppet, plus a balled-up anger, a rage at the constraints of his little table that'll resonate with every member of the audience whose lives are not as free as we'd like, which is all of us. There's something about puppetry which, to me, punishes serious stabs at high art — they seem ponderous. But when awash with humor, as "The Table" certainly is, with artistry and beauty in supporting roles, you can have a work of surprising resonance and power. 
     "The Table" makes for a great introduction to this kind of puppetry because it was so self-aware: Moses talks about himself, presenting a puppet show. The performers are gifted comics, great improvisers—when a helper, pressed into service from the audience, managed to yank off Moses' right hand, it became one of the highlights of the night, with Moses cringing in horror, waving his maimed limb. Tuesday at 10:30 p.m., when they get on stage with Second City, there's no question they'll easily hold their own. 
     The moment that will stay with me, however, is when they were illustrating how the puppet is manipulated to give it presence, to animate it, a process that doesn't really rely upon the puppet itself. They eased Moses into resting on a corner of his table and three puppeteers deftly lifted out -- what? His soul? The essence of performance?—and manipulated the air, basically. The audience's attention easily shifted from Moses, now an inanimate lump, to the void the three were putting through easy-to-understand paces. It was a magnificent piece of performing magic, literally creating art out of nothing. 
    At the end, they announced they would be trying out 10 minutes or so of a new piece, "Citizen Puppet," wanted audience feedback.  Almost no one in the sold out upstairs space at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater took the opportunity to leave. We all lingered 10 minutes, and then returned to our seats to a brilliant encore that began with Tina, a sour old lady observing, "Well you can call it a bean stalk if you like!" and mixing a babbling brook of small town village gossip with observations of this surreal giant green fairy tale phallus that has suddenly thrust itself into the sky. We meet Howie, a tiny elderly man on a bench, and Suki, a nasal teen. I thought of "Spoon River Anthology" meets "Jack and the Beanstalk" and would have happily watched 90 minutes of it.
      Blind Summit is performing "The Table" all this week at CST, adding a taste of "Citizen Puppet," which debuts in the United Kingdom in March, on Friday and Saturday night. If you go, you'll never forget it. If you miss it, you'll have to haul yourself to London to see them, or wait two years until the festival returns and hope they come back. That is not a risk I would suggest taking.

Photo atop blog by Xue Quian


  1. Marvelous. Another peek into an unknown world. Thanks.


    But watch your pantomime.

  2. Mr. S., your colleague, Heidi Weiss , also reported on some puppet program in the paper. Hope you saw that.

  3. Neil, my wife and I read the above post and promptly bought tickets to the Wednesday night performance of "The Table". We found it to be brilliant. Thanks for the tip.


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