When we were little, I remember my brother being frightened by the Saber-toothed tiger in our book about prehistoric animals. I wasn’t. I had nightmares about Pinocchio – not the Disney cartoon, the wooden marionette with the dead black eyes, so unknowable.
Puppets often remain eerie and unknowable to me, but that’s now part of their appeal. So I was drawn to the half-sized woman who was sitting sadly in a motel room in “Motel” by Dan Hurlin. This is not a traditional puppet show. It is a puppet installation – an art installation being presented for free through November 12th at La MaMa’s La Galleria , as part of La MaMa’s 2023 Puppet Festival.
Most puppets don’t change facial expressions, even when they’re talking or walking, but this one was especially mysterious, because it wasn’t moving at all, and nobody made it speak.
As it happens, Dan Hurlin was at the gallery when I visited, so I asked him what we were supposed to take away from this puppet tableau; is it open to our interpretation, or did he have something specific in mind?
Well, he replied, he had something specific in mind when he created it.
So I looked at it more carefully.
the half-size telephone, the half-size Bible on the half-size bed, a cheap fur coat on a hanger near the diminutive bathroom. And then I spotted the half size envelope with half size twenty-dollar bills.
I went back to him. “Here’s what I think is happening,” I said, and I told him. He winked.
I won’t tell you here, but if you go (again, it’s free), Hurlin told me there’s a clue in the name of the motel, which he put on the letterhead on the diminutive stationery on the little desk, and is also in one of the small exhibits in the gallery that supplement the installation.
Shortly after solving the mystery of “Motel,” I went to my next stop at the festival, “Sounding the Resonant Path” by Tom Lee, at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater.
It was an elaborate 45-minute, labor-intensive theater piece, involving some half dozen puppeteers, four musicians, extensive video projections and a home-drawn moving panorama, a rainmaking machine, with a set centering on what looks like a circular wooden boardwalk. Lee started the piece by lifting up what looked like a rocket ship, while an authoritative voice told us about Voyager 2 spacecraft, which is more than twelve billion miles from earth (the furthest any man-made vehicle has ever been), and is on a mission to study interstellar space. It includes a golden record that tells the story of Planet Earth, for the benefit of any life forms in Outer Space, and features a range of music, including that, we’re told of a player of shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute made of bamboo. From there, Lee accompanies a puppet who walks along the wooden circular path, cuts down a bamboo tree, drills and saws it into a shakuhachi. There is then a panorama of life forms on Earth, starting with the dinosaur. The piece ends with Lee holding the puppet aloft in what might be Voyager 2, against a starry backdrop.
Another puppet mystery. In this one, I figured out that the puppet shakuhachi maker was the musician mentioned on the Voyager 2 record. I went up to Tom Lee after the show with my interpretation, expecting he would wink at me too.
He didn’t. He very gently explained how he had come up with the piece, and politely directed me to the program (which I could have read beforehand):
“Sounding the Resonant Path began as an outdoor ritual of remembrance in my backyard in Chicago for Jun Maeda, La MaMa’s long time resident set designer, who passed away in the terrible, early weeks of the pandemic. It has grown into celebration/performance/installation about the creative act of the artist juxtaposed against the immensity of the universe. This performance includes mentors and students on many different levels and, crucially, takes place at La MaMa where my and so many other artistic journeys began.”
The shakuhachi player in the gold record was a mentor to one of the musicians in the show.
But the lesson here is that puppetry helps create mysteries that are just as satisfying even they’re not solved.