Puppetopia Festival: Deeper Closer Warmer

Deeper Closer Warmer,” a fun hour of puppet monster mayhem, is the creation of identical twin brothers Pablo and Efrain Del Hierro from Santurce, Puerto Rico who for more than a decade, as Poncili Creación (emphasis on silly), have given life to huge goofy monsters and tiny hyperactive critters. They work their anarchic charm together with The Daxophone Consort, the oddest-ever three-member musical band, in this centerpiece of the second annual Puppetopia festival, which is showcasing five new works of puppetry at HERE Arts Center through March 25.

The brothers don a series of costumes that double as creatures, looking like huge green tomatoes or oversized green sofas. On several occasions, there looks to be a battle between  the creature and the person inside, as if the one had swallowed the other, who is now trying to escape. The puppets frequently menace the audience – the smaller ones flying overhead, the larger ones trying to gobble up a theatergoer. One had his heavy winter coat snatched, swallowed, visibly digested, and then, unmistakably, defecated. 

This happens in concert with the Consort, a trio (Daniel Fishkin, Cleek Schrey and Ron Shalom) dressed in what looks like sloppy, second-hand hazmat suits, and green alien masks. They play a violin or a bass at times, but mostly a daxophone, which the program describes as “a modern instrument consisting of thin, bowed wooden strip, whose sound ranges from delicate whistles to wild screams” – and which apparently can either rest on your lap, or hang suspended vertically from the columns of the auditorium.

“Deeper Closer Warmer” may have a plot. It begins with a violently shivering red man-bird strapped to what may be a hospital gurney, being either rushed to the Emergency Room, or being abducted. The bird may eventually give birth; and its child may eventually grow big and come back to rescue, um, her. This could be entirely imagined, my effort to find order in the comic chaos. There is little clue in the  program, which calls the show “an ancient surgery that examines the crevices of flesh and consciousness.”  This is the kind of cryptic, high-falutin’ description that’s typical of Puppetopia (and modern adult puppetry in general) —  and makes the show sound a lot less entertaining than it actually is. “Deeper Closer Warmer” is running through March 19.

There are four other shows in the festival, two of which end tonight, which I saw yesterday, in a double bill. 

In the shorter and better of the two, “Mother Mold,”  a somber-faced Ben Elling and Rosa Elling (the duo who comprise the It Figures Puppet Company) carry a sailboat beneath a red-tinted sun, containing a small white stick figure. The figure lands on a desert island, which looks like a very wrinkled bedsheet.  There the figure uncaps a message in a bottle, which says “We’ve been here before, you and me.” – which is neither grammatical nor particularly illuminating. The figure  does some excavating, and winds up nestled in that sun.  I give you the plot, mostly because that’s something I can write about,  but the appeal of “Mother Mold” rests largely in its otherworldly mood, established even more than the luminous images by the original music composed by John Dyer.

Original music figures even more prominently in “Tin Iso and The Dawn.” Indeed, it began with Tristan Allen playing haunting, hypnotic ambient music at a piano that sat sideways to an empty screen facing the audience; the piano playing went on for so long without anything appearing on the screen that I started asking myself: “Where are the puppets?” Eventually, Tristan Allen got up from the piano, and went behind the screen, to create what the program calls “a shadow puppet symphony,” accompanied by a recording of the music we had been listening to on the piano. There were shadow puppets of a predatory bird, a small white butterfly, a whale, a bare tree, the sun, a woman and a man – separately, and together, and then together in obvious bliss – against a background of a variety of fluttering abstract patterns. All of this was an effort to create what the program describes as “the origins of an imaginary world, the first chapter to a grand overarching story told through music and puppetry.” This sounds as if it’s a work in progress, but at the end of the show Allen announced that the album of “Tin Iso and The Dawn” would soon be available, without mentioning anything about the puppetry.

The remaining festival offerings are “The Emotions,” March 22 and 23, and “Offal Unstory,” March 24 and 25. Tickets are from $10 to $65. Rush policy: free with student ID.

Photos by Richard Termine

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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