What’s an opening night without a red carpet? The second biannual International Puppet Fringe Festival of New York began with a parade of inanimate objects brought to life — a giant skeleton and an even larger Statue of Liberty, a tiny penguin and an even smaller…plant-like creature…all dancing on the red carpet placed in front of the stage in the former parking lot behind the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, welcomed by a musical trio of drums, trumpet and tuba.
Then the festival got down to business, presenting three widely varied works of puppetry that offered a taste of the more than 70 shows that will be performed as part of the festival, mostly for free, over the next three weeks. (There will also be panel discussions and puppet-making workshops…and five separate exhibitions!)
In “The Triple Zhongkui Pageant,” the 20-year-old New York based company Chinese Theatre Works fashioned a 15-minute monologue for a familiar character from Chinese opera, Zhongkui, presenting him both as a red-garbed giant and and a tiny hand puppet, telling the tale both in Chinese and in English, set in both ancient and current times. We hear how Zhongkui traveled to the capital city to take the Imperial exam, but he failed to win top honors, bringing him shame. “So, I killed myself right there in the palace. But, thanks to God, who saw that I was an upright person, I was granted the title of Chief General Exorcist. Here in the West, you might call me cosmic Chinese ghost buster. Now, I’m honored to be invited here to be part of the international Fringe Festival. We’ll clear this parking lot, stage and the surrounding Lower East Side of evil spirits”.
Among the evils? “Last year, there were over 4000 reported assaults and hate crimes against Asian people in the U.S.”
Following this show derived from Chinese opera, Teatro Sea. which describes itself as “the Latino theater for young audiences of NYC” presented “Los Grises/The Gray Ones.” Eight (mostly young) performers manipulated puppets (wearing them like costumes) that depicted older people. Over the course of about half an hour, they wordlessly listened and then danced to boleros, tangos, and mambos, including a priceless Latin-tinged take on “Stormy Weather,” which wafts over the sound system as they sway beneath colorful umbrellas. Developed by Manuel Antonio Morán, who is the artistic director of both Teatro Sea and of the puppet fringe festival, the piece is intended as a celebration of the community’s elders.
The evening ended with a very different tribute to an elder. Mallory Lewis, daughter of the late ventriloquist, puppeteer and TV host Shari Lewis, performed with the feisty sock puppet Lamb Chop, who was a TV celebrity in her own right for decades starting in the 1950s. “The Shari Lewis Legacy Show” felt like a nightclub act, or a segment on a TV variety show, especially since Mallory and Lamb Chop had their own cameraman capturing every moment, as the two joshed one another a la Sonny and Cher. At one point Mallory talked about the awful year everybody had, then said: “Whether you’re a Democat or a Republican, on the left or in the wrong, we are all Americans…” and launched into a medley of patriotic American songs that was, quite convincingly, a duet.
Tomorrow, as part of New York City’s first-ever Puppet Week, the Museum of the City of New York will open the exhibition “Puppets of New York”….with another “Celebrity Puppet Red Carpet.”