Puppet Animation &Theater 28 Apr 2007 10:00 am

Out Damn Spot

– Last night I saw a program at the New Victory theater on the revamped 42nd Street. (This theater was built in 1900 by Oscar Hammer-stein I and is the oldest theater on the block. It predates the Ziegfeld Follies!)
The program was Macbeth, as performed by marionettes. The Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla e Figli is the world’s oldest puppet troupe. It was established in the late 18th century in Milan and has been in operation ever since.

Anyone who his visited my studio or home has a good idea that I might be a marionette fan. They’re tucked into many a corner of my spaces. When I was a child I made them out of muslin and made clothes for them as well (and consequently learned how to sew). I bought them at expensive toy stores (I treasured the Lady and the Tramp puppets that I had.)
I built a puppet theater and charged admission to the kids of the neighborhood to come see the shows. (The candy counter made all the money.) With the cash, I bought more puppets and put on more shows.

I was intrigued with the very popular Bil and Cora Baird (maybe sometime I’ll tell you about my interview with Bil Baird for a job in his company), and the show I saw in their Barrow Street theater – Jack & the Beanstalk – was the last marionette program I saw prior to last night’s Macbeth.

Marionettes have specific problems – mechanical ones.
Strings have to be hidden, unless you’re some kind of avant garde puppeteer who wants to call attention to them. The longer the strings, the greater the problems.
Gravity is another problem. Puppets often seem to be weightless, and to some degree, they are. They’re held aloft by the overhead puppeteer manipulating them. Hence, walks often look comical. It’s easier for them to glide along rather than imitate a walk.

Puppet animation has a great advantage since they’re moved ahead and manipulated frame by frame. They can be made to do anything a human can, if the animator is good enough.

The program last night had an enormous set filling a stage. There was always a foreground area – a beautiful wooded setting, painted to look like a Romantic watercolor of the 18th century or a castle made of bricks – which left an opening of about 10 ft wide by 8 ft high. (This is purely speculation from the 8th row.) Above the opening, of course, are the puppeteers. About ten of them work above the stage; they took a bow at the end to reveal themselves.

There were six actors who sat in the orchestra pit with their backs to us. Their performances, I thought, were a bit uneven. Macbeth, himself, was brilliant until it came time for him to say some of the character’s great lines. They were also miked, and the sound didn’t come from the stage but from speakers. The puppeteers, however, were so expert that I didn’t have any confusion in knowing which puppet was speaking.

Within the framing device were many beautiful sets in which the puppets would work. All of the settings were elaborate and theatrical, all of them complex. Large scenes employed upwards of twenty marionettes moving about. In one opening scene, four men talked in the foreground while endless groups of characters walked behind them – several on horseback.

Yes, there were infrequent laughs at how the characters walked (especially the horses), but the manipulation had to have been the best I’ve seen, and for the most part you bought it. Team America captured quite a bit of the funny part of marionettes, but Macbeth captured some of the greatness of them.

I would have liked the show to have been a bit more theatrical – the lights, the sets, the puppet performances were all magnificent, but the writing could have incorporated less of the talk and more of the violence of the story. The company seemed to be trying to show the subtleties they could perform with the marionettes, and they succeeded. I wish they balanced the climaxes in the show a little more carefully when they set about abbreviating Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Sorry, I have a hundred more things to say about the subject, so I allowed myself to ramble here. I will come back to it, and be a little more organized in my writing. But the show was sterling and shouldn’t be missed. It plays through this weekend at the New Victory Theater.

5 Responses to “Out Damn Spot”

  1. on 28 Apr 2007 at 12:34 pm 1.Scott Harpel said …

    I assume you have seen the Danish movie Strings Michael? perhaps the most beautiful thing involving marionettes I have ever seen. Not to mention the english voice cast is pretty superb.

  2. on 28 Apr 2007 at 1:19 pm 2.Michael said …

    Actually, no. I was not familiar with the film, Strings, until your comment. I’ve bought one on Amazon, though will probably rent it before I get one mailed to me. The reviews I’ve read on-line sound great. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  3. on 28 Apr 2007 at 5:11 pm 3.Galen Fott said …

    Thanks for this post! I would love to see it.

  4. on 28 Apr 2007 at 9:15 pm 4.Bill Robinson said …

    Hey Michael – I’m a big fan of your blog, and we met very briefly at the Ottawa picnic last fall. I just had to respond to this post about marionettes, because like you, I grew up loving marionettes and creating my own and putting on shows. Along with a friend of mine, we created 5 shows over six years and toured around western Massachusetts with them, going to libraries and schools and fairs. Some of my best memories of my childhood involve puppets! (I think it all started with Jim Henson, now I work as an animator and my friend works at Sesame Street in NYC.) Anyway, you can see pictures from our shows on my old website:


    Just click on the “marionettes” section. (Keep in mind those puppets were made when I was 12-16…) The one show that’s not on there is our first one, The Wizard of Oz. A ridiculous idea for two fifth graders to take on, but I guess we were thinking big even back then.

    ps – Have you seen the film Strings?

  5. on 28 Apr 2007 at 10:49 pm 5.Henry Lowengard said …

    Picky note:
    That’s Bil Baird, without the second (or first) ‘l’… didn’t Tedd Pierce used to say he put in a extra ‘d’ to compensate?
    We see many kinds of puppet shows, but only a few are marionettes – one interesting company uses traditional Indian puppets that can do twisting moves, throw and catch balls (on strings),ride horses while holding flaming batons… pretty interesting stuff! http://www.leelapuppettheater.org/

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