Some Highlights from the Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival 2006

This article was originally published on the Puppets Up! website (14 August 2006). It no longer appears to be accessible via this site. I have corrected a few minor errors.

In the hope of giving those who were not able to attend the festival a taste of what it was like, I will share here a few of the performances that especially caught my eye (and ear, in some cases). With only two days to check out so many exciting companies and artists, even if you were in Almonte for the festival, chances are you were not able to see everything. Obviously, this is an entirely subjective report, and since there simply is not enough room on this page to discuss every company (nor was there time for me to see every company), my apologies to those that I do not mention below. Thank you all for sharing your work with us in Almonte!

Teatro y Títeres Cucaramácara: Tres pícaros de fábula

This show, which consisted of three short picaresque pieces, was a particular highlight for me, both because it harkened back to tradition and because it featured more stylized and conceptual puppetry forms. As “Buenos vecinos,” or “Good Neighbours,” was being performed, the clacking of slapsticks and the cries of “Polichinello!” from the children (and the children at heart) in the audience filled the air as they have outside fairground booths and on street corners in Europe for hundreds of years. Since the rise of the terrible spectre of political correctness, traditional Punch and Judy shows have become difficult to find in Canada. (When I consider just how violent action and horror movies, not to mention video games, have become, I am forced to wonder why so many people object to a hand puppet with a slapstick. I am not saying I object to violent movies or games. Performed violence has always had a place in cultural activity, and watching it is surely preferable to watching the real thing in a colosseum. But I do object to double standards, especially when puppets are involved.) While some of the parents in the audience seemed to object to this violence, the children certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, which is, of course, the most important thing. And the piece ended on a positive (and peaceful!) note, as it emphasized the importance of friendship.

The feuding neighbours from “Demasiado ruido,” part of Teatro y Títeres Cucaramácara’s Tres pícaros de fábula. Photograph credit: James B. Ashby.

The third short performance, “Demasiado ruido,” or “Too Much Noise,” was an important contribution to the festival for a very different reason, namely because it represented a departure from tradition. This piece also concerned two feuding neighbours, but hand puppets were abandoned in favour of a more stylized kind of puppet. As I mentioned in an earlier article, “What Is a Puppet?” a puppet does not need to be wholly or even partially inanimate, and in this production, the audience saw both the animate and the inanimate fused together to form two engaging characters. Each of the puppets consisted of a pair of gloved hands. A miniature mask carved in the style of the Borucas, one of the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica, was fitted to the index finger of one of the hands and acted as a head. Antecedents to this style of puppetry can certainly be found. The famous Russian puppet artist Sergei Obraztsov performed a piece with a wooden sphere atop each of his hands, while the French puppet artist Yves Joly was known for his ballets, melodramas, and satires that starred only his two nimble hands and occasionally gloves and a few other small pieces of costume for his “actors.” But we rarely see this kind of conceptual puppetry in English Canada (although Robert Hubshner’s Punchinello of London, Ontario also once presented hand ballets as part of its repertoire), which is why festivals such as Puppets Up! are so vitally important to the art of puppetry, as they allow puppet artists to share with and learn from one another, and that is how the art form grows. As the well-known American puppet artist Bil Baird wrote, puppeteers, but also audience members, “might profit by the opportunity to know what the rest of the world is doing” (Art of the Puppet 246), and I, for one, hope to “profit by the opportunity” to see this Costa Rican company perform again sometime soon.

Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers: The Legend of the Banana Kid

At the risk of offending some members of the community I wish to serve, I have to state the obvious here: there is no shortage of builders and manipulators of “Muppet-style” puppets (that is, hand-and-rod puppets and their variants) in Canada. Some of them, such as Stephen Braithwaite and Vicki Veenstra, both of whom could be seen in Tante Caroline in the Eye of the Storm at Puppets Up! this year, are established and respected artists.

IMG_0200.JPG – Version 2
Tante Caroline (a.k.a. Caroline Lajoie-Jempson) and Vicki Veenstra (being led by Noisette) pause mid-parade to chat with some spectators. Photograph credit: James B. Ashby.

Others, such as Ben Durocher, who presented his original production, Johnny’s Midnight Adventure, this year in Almonte as well, are clearly the future of that form of puppetry. And then there is Noreen Young, whose puppets are clearly related to this style, making her one of the acknowledged masters of it in Canada. Unfortunately, however, a great many more can only perform clichéd routines with tiresome, derivative puppets. Whether it be on television or at children’s festivals, we have all, I think, seen enough unoriginal, poorly constructed “floppy-mouth” puppets to last us until the end of this lifetime, at least.

That said, an original twist on an old idea can be enough to give it new life, and at this year’s festival, no company proved this hoary axiom to be true more convincingly than the Maine-based Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers did. Stylistically, Frogtown’s roots are showing. Manipulating fuzzy hand-and-rod puppets while hidden, the members of the company clearly owe a debt to Jim Henson, perhaps the most famous North American puppet artist to date. They make both their puppets and their show their own, however, through their tongue-in-cheek humour and liberal use of metatheatrical devices. When a train could be heard passing by outside, for example, they immediately incorporated it into their performance. Rather than stopping the show completely or vainly trying to compete with the noise that the train was producing, they performed a short series of seemingly improvised routines that elicited appreciative laughter from the audience. When Little Chucky told his sister to pretend that the train was running right through their house (and it certainly sounded like it was), the two began to tear across the stage screaming. This self-referential performance was carried even further as the sound of the train began to fade into the distance, as Chucky then asked the audience to help him remember where he was in the show. The members of Frogtown also referred back to this intrusion later in the show. As the wicked but also, in her own way, progressive Cross-Eyed Mary was tying store owner Mr. Peterson to the railroad tracks (as a feminist commentary on all the women who had been tied to railroad tracks, according to Mary herself), Little Chucky noted how appropriate it would be if a real train happened to pass by again at that exact moment. The company’s use of signs marked “Boo!” and “Yay!” as they introduced all of the characters (with the exception of Boy Named Sue, whose introduction was accompanied by a sign littered with question marks), their frequent references to and citations of both popular music and the western genre,  and several other related devices cleverly revealed that they knew exactly what they were doing: staging a hilariously self-aware revised revisit of the TV western, of “floppy-mouthed” puppetry, and of melodrama in general.

Roswell 7:09 - Frogtown w:BK puppets
Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers: three siblings (Erik Torbeck, Brian Torbeck, and Robin Erlandsen, née Torbeck) with some of their fellow performers from The Legend of the Banana Kid. This photograph was taken backstage in July 2009 at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center in Roswell, Georgia. Photograph credit: Rick Strot. Courtesy of Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers.

To be continued. . . .

Note: This article was originally supposed to be the first of at least two covering highlights from the 2006 festival. However, there were a few other articles that I was writing for the festival at the time, while also working as a teaching assistant and trying to make progress on my PhD. Thus, unfortunately, the other “highlights” pieces never appeared.

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