The Greatest Show on Strings!
This is how our Ringmaster describes Circus! at The Puppet Co. after he has entered the stage’s single ring.
What follows is thirty-five minutes of engaging big top antics, performed by a cast made of wood and stuffing, manipulated by two puppeteers.
These puppets include a seal who balances a ball on its nose. There are clowns, one riding a unicycle on a high-wire, and another who blows bubbles. There’s the daring young girl on the flying trapeze, and a lion-tamer.
My twins and I have been coming to shows at The Puppet Co. pretty frequently over their five years. Just last month, we saw The Wizard of Oz; earlier this year, Jack and the Beanstalk and The Nutcracker, their traditional holiday offering.
A circus is usually marketed to “children of all ages,” and, indeed, Circus! is recommended, on their season flyer, as appropriate for kids of any age. It’s also the shortest show we’ve seen there; the others have lasted about one hour, while Circus! clocks in at thirty-five minutes.
That means it’s just about long enough to satisfy, but not exhaust, those youngest viewers. My daughter wondered why it was that short. When I explained, she understood: “The show was for any size of kid: little kids; medium kids; and big kids.”
At one point, our ringmaster told us that The Puppet Co. has been in business for a surprisingly-long thirty-four years. That means it began in the last century.
And the company is a decidedly low-tech, 20th Century affair. Cirque de Soleil this is not. With the possible exception of a face-mic, there is nary a vestige of our smart-phone era. (Well, we are admonished to silence our phones, but, otherwise…)
Which I suppose means, as well, that the most jaded, 21st Century tots might be too cool for this school. However, the gasps and appreciative “ah’s” that greeted many of the acts indicated to me that computer effects and pyrotechnics are not always needed to induce wonder. That can be achieved more simply, by the nose of a puppet suddenly lighting up.
closes August 27, 2017
Details and tickets
Part of the company’s charm is its low-tech approach. For example, a few of the puppet “performers” don’t immediately conquer their particular tasks, and the kids then become invested in their eventual success, like the little train that could.
At the same time, the kids also buy into the illusions, and black-outs between sequences are filled with exchanges beginning, “How could…?” followed by “Because…,” as kids veer between being in awe of an impressive effect, and (the other side of the childhood coin) proudly concocting a theory that explains it.
As the Daddy, I don’t have an immediate explanation for everything that happened. How does a puppet blow up a balloon? You’ve got me.
The Michael Kahn of The Puppet Co. is Christopher Piper, who here is our Ringmaster. He has led the puppeteering team/cast of each show we’ve seen at The Puppet Co. In Circus!, he is assisted by Grace Eda Baker.
With his gray beard and eye patch, Piper cuts an exotic figure, and he peppers his patter with enough wry observations to amuse parents as well as their kids.
When a wolf makes an entrance from the house, and past many of the children, Piper assures us that “he’s already had lunch.” A puppet who is initially unable to leap over a jump is chided, “You can’t go under it; you’re a marionette.”
An interesting aspect of one’s experience at The Puppet Co. is that each show employs different (or, in this case, multiple) types of puppet performance. Through much of Circus!, we see the puppeteers in full view. In other shows, they are concealed, and, in some, the puppets interact with live actors.
One sequence in Circus! is introduced as being in the Japanese “Bunraku” style, with the puppeteers fully concealed in black.
The Puppet Co. is ensconced at Glen Echo Park, in the same long structure that houses Adventure Theatre MTC. It’s in a smallish room with a tiny, elevated stage.
Mostly, seating is on the floor. Closest to the stage is kids-only; about one-third of the way back, adults can sit with kids; and there’s a wrap-around couch that’s adult-only.
Of course, it’s been nearly half-a-century since Glen Echo was a fully-functioning amusement park. I remember when it had a roller-coaster. (Not a very impressive or tall one, but I thought it was cool.)
There’s still a lot going on at Glen Echo, and a trip to The Puppet Co. (as well as one to Adventure MTC) can also include a visit to the playground, the carousel, or the aquarium; an ice-cream at the food concession; or a peek at some of the arts and crafts studios housed there. (If you’re going to The Puppet Co., the Clara Barton House might be of less interest to your group, but it shares the parking lot.)
Of course, those activities will follow the post-show photo op: Mr Piper is always outside the theatre and willing to pose for a snapshot with his audience. (Bring your own camera, or use your smart phone — well, I guess 21st Century technology is vital to that part of the Puppet Co. experience, anyway.)
The Puppet Co. won’t be for everyone, and kids glued to i-Pads might be less engaged than, say, kids who go to a Waldorf school. My kids are in between those extremes, and we had a great time, and will be back this Fall for Pinocchio.
The most impressive (to this Daddy) of the acts, and, I think, the most sophisticated, was the daring young girl on the flying trapeze.
Piper manipulated the puppet delicately. Its velocity increased subtlety and, by the time the act culminated in a twist…well, that little, wooden acrobat had all of us in her corner, rooting for her success.
Circus! Performed by Christopher Piper & Grace Eda Baker. Puppets by Len & Pat Piper; Christopher & MayField Piper; Allan Stevens. Stage [sic] by Christopher Piper. Set by Allan Stevens & MayField Piper. Lighting Design by Christopher Piper. Produced by The Puppet Co. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.
Christopher Piper says
Wonderful and insightful review, Christopher. Thank you. I just want to point out that the “Stage” credited in the program refers to the raked circus ring platform built specifically for this production. Its design and construction was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.
I was thrilled by your impression of low tech in the production because, in my opinion, tech should never get in the way of the performance. Behind the scenes, one might be surprised to see how much of the show’s sound and lighting is run by an autonomous computer. Much of the lighting is provided by state of the art, color-changing LED instruments, and sound runs off the computer’s hard drive. It even runs the bubble machine!
Finally, I was touched by your love of the trapeze artist. It was built by my father, Len Piper, and modeled after my mother Pat more than 50 years ago.