There is something mesmerizing about hand puppets for young audiences. The real world is shrunk, made manageable, and essentially emptied out of grown ups. These puppets’ soft, squidgy forms are so simple yet malleable that they are immediately accessible.
Their gags work like a charm, and, because hand puppets are small of brain, they invite their young audiences in attendance to shout out instructions and warnings when they have their temporary lapses and blind spots.Perhaps best of all, hand puppets are forgiving of themselves and each other. They can push, pull, and pound each other to a pulp, but they always come back for more.
The Puppet Co, ensconced in its clean and cozy theatre space in Glen Echo Park, offers a delightful introduction to this world and to the experience of theatre going to young members of our community.
It’s magical how little scraps of rags can tremble, bluster, fall from a tower, and resurrect so convincingly. No one knows this better than Director and Co-founder of The Puppet Co., Allan Stevens, who has directed Rapunzel. The show promises to be a favorite in their repertory.
Puppeteer Eric Brooks gives a solo performance, giving voice and animation to a cast of characters which include a medieval Narrator, Mom and Pop, the Witch-next-door, Rapunzel, and, of course, her Prince. I heard one little boy pipe up in the dark to his father, “How many people are back there?” He kept standing up to see what or who made things go.
Before the show, Brooks reminds us that there is more than one way to tell a story. The Puppet Co. has gone back to elements in the original folk tale documented by the Grimm Brothers. The plot feels authentic and most decidedly un-Disney, and in this version there are some nifty twists. My favorite, taken from Grimm, is that instead of Rapunzel being rescued by her prince, she ends up rescuing and healing him. After he is blinded by a terrible fall into brambles, they reunite, and her tears of love fall into his eyes and restore his sight.
Best of all, in many scenes of Rapunzel, the little diminutive bodies are manipulated to express what puppets can do best. Not only can witches pop up from beneath the ground transformed from a talking radish, but in no other theatrical form can one person hang on and climb up another’s hair. It’s a wonderful central scene where we can simply delight watching the witch, hand-over-hand, pull her heft up the long golden braid of Rapunzel.
The set, by Allan Stevens, is fancifully painted like a children’s picture book. The stage box within a stage is saturated with strong colors and decorated with a roundel, featuring the rapunzel veggie and framing old-fashioned painted backdrops that sequentially roll up to reveal the next locale in the story.
I will confess I wasn’t wild about the first scene of the story, for it takes proportionally too long (a good third of the show) to give us the back story of how a wife gets a hankering for the cultivated rapunzel(radish) growing in her neighbor’s garden. (In some versions, the woman’s desire is attributed to being a pregnant woman’s irrational urges, but in this version she’s just a greedily envious discontent.) What’s more, after she quickly tires of eating radishes, the miraculous baby arrives (in a basket, no less), and immediately the Witch appears. The mother has no bonding experience with the child so that the key plot point of the great barter necessitating that she relinquish the baby to the witch seems of little consequence.
Following this defect however, writer and co-founder Duane T. Bowers settles into the heart of the story with some wonderful comedic flare. The Witch vacillates between her magic “pouf” and good elbow grease in order to upgrade her home to a tower. The relationship of the old lady and her young ward could use further exploration, but both characters express curious parallel discontent and loneliness. The central scene, where the Witch visits the imprisoned young woman and calls out, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair,” is beautifully executed by Brooks. The fight over the braid, when the Witch is determined to shear the girl’s golden locks to keep Rapunzel from escaping is puppet choreography at its best. The two characters conduct a tug of war and chase each other around in a delightful sequence that incorporates classic action puppetry.
Often, the simplest effects work best theatrically, and music can support the art of puppetry to greater effect more often than reams of dialogue. I am reminded of the very beginning where two paper butterflies, each on single wires, float in and flutter through the garden while something of an overture plays. Just following the movement with the music helps settle the audience and open eyes, hearts, and minds to the magical world of puppetry.
Another moment that seems sublime to me is when Rapunzel begins to sing and draws the Prince to her through her voice. After the squawking of so many of the characters, occasionally even to the degree that the dialogue gets garbled, Brooks lets Rapunzel establish a new pure sound supported by just the barest instrumentation. It’s a moment of calm legato and expresses beautifully why the Prince would instantly fall in love. Their first meeting can go even further to establish a new tone and tempo for the lovers, letting Rapunzel’s speaking voice match the sweet honesty of her singing and of the Prince’s heartfelt declarations.
Watching the production, I began to understand more fully how developing a puppet show means layering different scenic elements, then over time translating them into puppet-appropriate actions. It will be fascinating how this featured work evolves in the capable hands of Brooks and The Puppet Co.
I recommend you bring a child or two to see Rapunzel, or tag along with a school group. It’s a classic.
Script by Duane T. Bowers, based on The Brothers Grimm
Directed by Allan Stevens
Designed by Allan Stevens
Produced by The Puppet Co.
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 45 minutes with no intermission