Jump Start: Puppetry from Lyrical to Hysterical at La MaMa

They range in tone from the lyrical to the hysterical, their subjects from grim to fanciful – environmental disaster; an assisted suicide; a self-help spoof – but all four works-in-progress presented in “Jump Start,” the concluding program of the 8th La MaMa Puppet Festival, share such an inventive and eclectic artistry that it seems inadequate to call them just puppet shows. Or, put another way, we need to understand that “puppet show” can (and does) incorporate dance, music, wondrous sculpture that stretch the definition of puppet, and cutting-edge video art.

“Place No Place,” a collaboration of dancer Lisa Gonzalez and puppeteer Tom Lee, begins with a video of a wildfire, later features a flood (produced convincingly by pouring onto an overhead projector), and segues into a mesmerizing collage of dancer and silhouettes (both in black and in white) that presents wordlessly but with great clarity the stresses on the flora and fauna near a small town. The piece ends hopefully, as Gonzalez puts each little piece of the town (church, etc.) – which were sprawled at random downstage on loose boards — into a semblance of order.

The excerpt from “Packrat” also begins with what looks like a wildfire, this one presented not just in a video backdrop but represented as two giant red puppet hands. Inspired by “Watership Down,” the show, created by Concrete Temple Theatre,focuses on a rodent and a companion (which could be a rabbit) who are forced to evacuate what looks like a decimated forest (presented as standalone sculptures made of what looks like driftwood.)The packrat is indeed a hoarder, as we see when it grapples with a plastic bag full of marshmallows – which, winds up, pointedly, both comic and tragic, an indirect but powerful comment on man’s abuse of nature. The packrat comes into contact with a wondrous quarter of baby owls.

The two other pieces presented on Friday use spoken English to establish very different tones. “The Final Lesson,” conceived by Federico Restrepo and executed by his Loco 7 Dance Puppet Theater, is an elaborate meditation on his Aunt Sonia’s decision to end her life at age 72 before her debilitating illness would make her lose her senses. “I absolutely disagree with what you’re about to do, but I absolutely respect it,” an actor says out to the audience. There is much dancing, there are two puppets – one a huge representation of Sonia, with a mouth that seems open in shock — and extensive use of what may be home videos of deliberately poor quality. Despite all the speaking, this was the most difficult of the four for me to follow. There’s work to be done to sharpen and clarify.

Daydream Tutorial, the only solo show on the bill, is the simplest, and simply hilarious. Maiko Kikuchi wears a face mask that looks like its drawn on a cardboard box, while she attempts to follow the voice-over and video instructions from the first five chapters of a very odd self-help book. In the first chapter, she listens as the voice gives her face exercises on how to make her face smaller. A video shows a figure from the book blowing out her cheeks. Our protagonist tries to do the same, but of course her face is just drawn on, in a permanent deadpan expression. In succeeding chapters, offering step by step advice on how to avoid your neighbor, for example, and how to clone yourself — she tries diligently to follow the instructions. If this sounds silly, it is – but the most prominent sound during her act was the sound of laughter in the theater.

Jump Start is meant to feature “works in progress,” but I’m not sure how much I would welcome longer version of these pieces, which each lasted about 20 minutes.
They felt complete to me; they are certainly satisfying.

Jump Start will be performed twice more (with a slightly different program) Saturday, Nov 24th at 8 pm. and Sunday, November 25th at 5 p.m.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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