The Theater Art of Ralph Lee. A Pig Beast for Sam Shepard, a Griffin for Brecht, a Monk for Wu Ch’eng-en…

The creatures created by Ralph Lee (July 9, 1935 – May 12, 2023) come alive even when display in an art exhibition rather than moving on stage, as evident in “Myths, Legends, & Spectacle: Masks and Puppets of Ralph Lee,” part of the Third International Puppet Fringe Festival at The Clemente Cultural Center. Below are photographs of some of the art work in the exhibition, with the full text from one of the wall labels, which describes the work he did in New York theater, from Broadway to Off-Off Broadway — such as the masks for Bertolt Brecht’s play “Galileo” at Lincoln Center, and the Pig Beast head for Sam Shepard’s play “Back Bog Beast Bait”

Puppets, Masks and New York Theater

When Ralph Lee arrived in New York City in the early sixties, much of the theater world — similar to dance — was also engaged in stepping away from realism and towards experimentation with characters, images, and beings which might best be represented by masks and puppets. Lee was able to flourish in this changing environment as an actor and director, as well as a mask and puppet maker.

Lee found acting jobs on Broadway and for a Lincoln Center production created the animal masks Bertolt Brecht required for his play Galileo, but he was also drawn to downtown performance, which was even more likelv to experiment with masks, puppets, and objects. He created animal masks for the Living Theater’s production of Jack Gelber’s The Apple (1961); designed the set for Leonard Melfis play Niagara Falls at La MaMa (1967); and performed in such Maria Irene Fornes plays as A Vietnamese Wedding (1967). He was a member of Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre from I967 to 1973, playing the role of Abel in the company’s acclaimed Bible-based The Serpent (1968). The Goat Devil mask in this gallery appeared in the Judson Poets’ Theater’s Dracula Sabbat, a production which then also inaugurated Theater for the New City.

In the early seventies Lee worked with playwright Sam Shepard at Theatre Genesis, building a giant Lobster Man puppet for the Shepard/Patti Smith collaboration Cowboy Mouth (1971), and creating a convincing design of a two-headed pig beast for Shepard’s Back Bog Beast Bait (1971). “I had made a sketch of this thing,” Lee later said, “which I showed to Sam, and at that point he had written out the Beast. But then he saw the sketch and he said, ‘well, I guess we’d better have the Beast in the show too.”

Lee’s collaborations with central figures of Off Off Broadway theater continued with his creation of masks and props for Adrienne Kennedy’s A Rat’s Mass at La MaMa Theater (1976), and his extensive work with Jean Erdman’s Theater of the Open Eye, including Moon Mysteries (1972), The Shining House (1980), and The Dream of Kitamura (1983). Although Lee’s work increasingly focused on Mettawee River Theater productions after he became the company’s director in 1976, he continued to create masks and puppets for downtown companies, including The Parrot (2004) by the Talking Band, a company composed of fellow Open Theater veterans

Lee created hand-held face masks of a dove, lion, griffin, sheep, dolphin and elephant for the 1967 production of Brecht’s “Galileo” by the short-lived Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center.
Mask from “The Dream of Kitamura” (1983) by Philip Kan Gotand for Jean Erdman’s Theater of the Open Eye. In the play , the demon Kitamura haunts the patriarch of the Japanese-American family in the 1940s.
Monk, Monkey, Pigsty and Sandy, small rod puppets inspired by classic Chinese characters, for “Stone Monkey Banished,” Mettawee River Theater Company, 2002, adapted by Jeffrey Jones from ”The Journey to the West” by Wu Ch’eng-en


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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