Theatre Mirror Reviews - "National Puppetry Conference, June 2001"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Will Stackman


National Puppetry Conference, June 2001

Reviewed by Will Stackman

One of the gems of the New England summer theatre scene is the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT, a two hour highway trip from the Boston area, at the farm made famous in "A Long Day's Journey into Night" on New London Bay. In the last decade, along with its continuing efforts to foster American playwrights, the Center, building on the work of reknowned puppeteers, Margo and Rufus Rose, has begun its season with events supporting serious puppetry, most recently with a annual National Puppetry Conference. This weeklong series of workshops, supported by the Rose Endowment established by Jane Henson, culminates in a long evening of short works.

This year's featured artists were John Farrell of Freeport Maine's "Figures of Speech Theatre" and Larry Reed, founder of San Francisco's "Shadowlight". Reed's Wayang Listirk, a joint American and Balinese production, amazed audiences at the Henson International Festival in NY three years ago, and played later that fall at Babson, to very little local notice. Reed's effort this time, "El Californio" is a collaboration with playwright Octavio Solis on an epic view of the settlement of California by the Spanish in conflict with its native peoples. Shadowlight's work uses images which fill the entire proscenium, involve variations in scale and focus, and incorporate live actors wearing shadow "masks" to achieve a unique movement style. As with other modern shadow theatre efforts, some of these techniques become so cinematic as to negate the live action quality of the performance which makes the form special. Spectacle always has risks.

John and Carol Farrell, while generally working with large figures, producing shows intended for stage presentation, use various forms of figurative puppetry to explore myths from around the world. Their most recent show, supported by an NEA grant, premiered in Maine last winter , drawing inspiration from Sioux legends. At the O'Neill, John worked with a group of six to produce a full stage piece, "The Grove", combining various mythic traditions concerning birth and rebirth. His expressionist set featured a large hanging crysalis which disgorged a small dancer, a symbolic forest of bamboo poles suspended vertically and a horizontal dead branch which became the stage for one puppet's journey toward a new beginning. The piece was evocative, but may have run into the limits of shared creation in too short a period of gestation. A soundscape for much of the action - there were few words - was created using traditional instruments by Bobbie Nidzgorski, who also serves as the Conference's general manager. Anyone heading to Snug Harbor later in the season can see several of the Farrell's shows at the MusicHall. Note: there's a ferry from New London to Long Island.

While the work of the featured artists sets a tone for the conference, and this year's tone was quite serious, the Emerging Artists Projects often provide major highlights of the evening. The finale of these fifteen minute efforts was scenes from "Aubrey Beardsley - A Singular Artist" a narrated shadow piece by long-time Allston resident, Caleb Fullam, based on the art and text of Beardsley's "Venus and Tannhauser". Caleb has recently relocated to Hudson, NY, where this work will premiere sometime in the future at a new cabaret venue opening there this fall. Two other works, "Fireball" an abstract docudrama written by Bonnie Remsberg, and "The Master of Prayers", derived from Kabbalistic concepts by Ariel Goldberger featured original music and sound by Alison Reid of Cambridge. The conference has recently added a "composition for live theatre" workshop directed by Larry Siegel. Incidently, most of the performers in these pieces are members and associates of the Flock Theatre, Derron Wood and Russell Tucker's company, which migrated to New Londonfrom Somerville some years ago. Flock performs and teaches puppetry in southern New England year round.

Any theatre person who wants a intensive introduction to theatrical puppetry, or who is developing a puppet theatre piece might consider attending next year's conference, which usually has an April 1st registration deadline. And anyone who can get down for next year's final performance in late June, 2002 will be rewarded with an evening of inspiring theatre. Look for details on the O'Neill Center website. Some of the program will also be reprised in NYC this winter, probably at HERE in Manhattan. Some of the five minute pieces created by various conference participants will probably be seen in Boston at upcoming PuppetSLAMS presented at the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline.
Will Stackman for Theatre Mirror



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