Three shadowy figures stand on a scaffold high above the stage, looking down on a tangle of eight foot strings and contorting themselves in and around each other to bring inanimate blocks of wood and celastic creatures, most no larger than three feet in height, to life. A fourth person stands on ground level and watches, from time to time offering suggestions and correcting the timing of a hand gesture or a stage cross.
I had come to The Puppet Co. at Glen Echo to discover what makes a grown man (or woman) want to become a puppeteer and spend one’s life working with, to put it bluntly, “blockheads.”
For the ensemble of four that make up the artistic team working to remount its production of The Magic Flute, there were some interesting answers to my question. Christopher Piper, president and founder of the theater, was born into it, and, like the great troupes of traditional puppetry found in Asia and Europe, he learned the “strings” of the business apprenticing to his father and mother, both professionals in the puppet arts.
His wife, Mayfield, married into the business and has grown her considerable passion over time. Co-founder Allan Stevens saw some little marionettes in the window of a hardware store in Alexandria at the age of five and, as he said, he was hooked. Relative newcomer, Eric Brooks, was living in Idaho when he got the calling, quite literally in a dream, where Jim Henson showed up and “invited” him to come east to work with him. Only one problem: Jim was already dead. Undeterred, Eric headed east and studied puppetry in the fine program at the University of Connecticut before migrating to the Washington area.
The Puppet Co. has been in business for almost three decades, always at Glen Echo Park, where, for years, it bounced around from space to space. Now the company is ensconced in a state-of-the-art, little gem of a complex, one of only two theaters built specifically for puppetry arts in the country.
The mission of the dedicated organization is to bring the art of puppet theater, with its synthesis of visual and performing arts, to children in the greater Washington area. To date the artistic team has built over twenty-four shows, and the troupe has been cycling them in repertory, playing to about 100,000 children and adults each year. Additionally, the company hosts fellow puppeteers and other guests to this mecca for puppetry.
Each production is selected carefully not only to demonstrate some new element or style of puppetry but to introduce young audiences to great stories, folk tales, and forms of theater, including Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream), the American Musical (Babes in Toyland) and Ballet (The Nutcracker).
The company’s most ambitious production to date, The Magic Flute, continues this foray, into the world of opera. Like all of their productions, Mozart’s work has been compressed to favor smaller folk with shorter attention spans. To adapt the original work, Christopher Piper tore apart and rebuilt Emmanuel Schickaneder’s original libretto. As he puts it, “I took out all the racism, sexism, suicide, and theology and got it down to an hour.”
Piper also brought together local singers (Ann Fox Conrad, Mary Haigney, Stephen Keese, J. Thomas Price and G. Stephen Stokes) and musicians with Musical Direction from Clif Harden. Together, the artists created a recorded “track” by which the puppeteers could deliver the drama in music.
One of the brilliant and bold strokes in this production was the design decision to populate The Magic Flute with whimsical animal figures. “I decided to make the characters immediately clear and more kid friendly,” Piper told me. The hero, Prince Tamino, is a kind of half-stag bi-ped, looking almost like an Egyptian God, and his great love, Pamina, the abducted daughter of the Queen of the Night, is similarly formed. Tamino’s sidekick, the bird catcher Pappageno, is a stout little blue bird with a chubby face and oversized, bright yellow chicken feet. In Sorcerer Sarastro’s realm, the evil Monostatos who closely guards Pamina, appears as a snake. Although it is one of the less complicated puppets and manipulated by only a few strings, in the capable hands of puppeteer Brook, the wiggly fellow works particularly well and convinced me even in the early rehearsal that he is singing Mozart. He bullies Pamina, “You shall pay for your defiance/ I shall throw you to the lions.”
The Queen of the Night and her three Attendants fly in and swirl around with huge jeweled eyes and diaphanous robes, as disembodied, fascinating alien creatures. I kept thinking how wonderfully appropriate these characters translate into the medium of puppetry.
Not everything so easily translates in the genre. I watched in rehearsal how the puppeteers struggled with certain logistics that in this form pose major technical difficulties. In one scene, Prince Tamino has to play a magic flute, which drops as a gift from the skies. Catching a flute and then playing it provides an enormous challenge for the instrument not to get tangled in the strings. Brooks tirelessly practices under Director Stevens’ watchful eye. But then in the run-through, when it all comes together, and that little stick flute drops down right in the groove between thumb and forefinger then gets raised, perfectly balanced to Tamino’s lips, it is magic indeed.
I loved seeing the “bones” of a production. The antics backstage or, more appropriately speaking of marionette theater, above the stage, “in the gods,” were at least as exciting as the scenes themselves. The action could get even more dramatic and certainly offered particular problems with congestion. The puppeteers ducked and stepped over and behind each other, passing off puppets to each other, sometimes servicing a single string of an other character while working a full puppet on their own.
In the early rehearsal, as the artists worked to recall the piece that had lain dormant in repertory, there was a lot of hissing and squawks when things got misplaced or tangled or timing went off. Mayfield was having problems getting her Pamina to kneel. A conversation ensued about whether the strings that had wintered over were a little stiff, or the problem was due to the unusual weight and balance of this puppet. A few moments later, a cue was missed and someone hissed. Mayfield wailed, “We’ve tangled the sheep!”
Mayfield and Piper might have been squabbling in a crowded kitchen over making dinner together, which they probably have also been doing for several decades. Then, when the sheep finally bounded on, one at a time, each so adorably cuddly and swaying to the melody, then turning to hear Pappageno’s magic bells and shaking their fuzzy rumps to follow the sound, I wanted to cheer.
I am gaining a whole new respect for puppet shows. This glimpse of process made the whole show more prized and exciting.
Despite the few glitches, one can feel the camaraderie and seriousness that these professionals show towards their art and each other. They help each other reconstruct the choreography and blocking (movement around the stage). Sometimes, one of them will lift elbows akimbo and with one or two fingers pluck the air. Then that person will translate that action into words of what the character is doing. Like dancers, the puppeteers mentally record their scene work through sense memory. The members of The Puppet Co. also have an unspoken rule in their collaborative process: whoever writes the show gets direction from a partner.
I didn’t get to see the set that includes rear projections, I’m told, but I know I will return to see the full production when it opens February 24 and runs through March 11. “You’ll come for the puppets, but you’ll stay for the pit of fire,” declared Piper about Steven’s great set, speaking as a creator who knows unequivocally he has a hit.
You’ll want to borrow some children if you don’t have your own as a great excuse to attend The Magic Flute. And don’t stop there. Catch the other inventive shows in repertory, including a new production of Rapunzel opening in March. For an evening of adult performance, you might also want to attend the Puppetry Slam, April 28, which draws puppetry artists from near and far.
The Magic Flute show is a worthy bridge for children to be transported into the sophisticated music and drama of opera. And why shouldn’t children get treated to the best in literature and performance? I call this show high-grade, artistic nutrition. It’s also a fascinating performance blend, where children and adults can appreciate the noble and timeless art of puppetry. I, for one, left the rehearsal enchanted.