Arts & Culture » Calendar

Theater Notes: puppets from hell



Looking for a different way to make puppet shows, Blair Thomas went to hear Argentinean puppet master Javier Villafane speak in New York last year. Villafane, now in his 90s, said he had been inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca to become a puppeteer: Villafane took a wagon full of marionettes and hand puppets into the Argentinean countryside and gave shows from it for much of his life. He met Garcia Lorca in Buenos Aires in 1937 or 1938, at a time when the playwright had become disillusioned with conventional theater and was dabbling in puppetry himself: he wrote several marionette plays about a brute named Don Cristobal who seduces the landlord's daughter and makes a fool of a well-born doctor.

"Puppetry exists because of the devil," Villafane told that New York audience. Thomas explains: "Every puppet show has a character who is a devil. In the Punch and Judy show, Punch is a despicable character. When his baby cries, Punch throws it out the window. When his wife complains, Punch kills her."

Anyone who's watched the modern-day equivalent of puppet shows--Saturday morning cartoons--might have to agree with Villafane. Cartoon characters relentlessly chase each other, get hit on the head with clubs, frying pans, and boulders, and flatten themselves on the ground after thousand-foot falls from cliffs but jump up moments later to continue their pursuit. These apparently immortal characters are consumed by an anarchic lust for the objects they desire. Their lust, and its continual frustration, is what makes cartoons so funny.

Villafane inspired Thomas to create (with the help of several collaborators) Red Devil Green Devil, a mask and puppet show. Behind a rickety proscenium draped in yards of tattered but elegant fabric, two devils play tricks: they steal a treasure map from each other, then steal the treasure chest and its key. Both are actors wearing patchwork robes made from squares of curtain brocade and brightly colored papier-mache masks that at first look like the faces of Hindu demons but on second glance look much like stylized clown faces. Each devil has a hand puppet that looks exactly like himself; the hand puppet whispers into the devil's ear, egging him on to further mischief. Neither devil says a word; instead a musician (Robert Rolston of the band Math) plays drums and cymbals (Punch and Judy shows had a cymbalist). Thomas and Mickle Maher, formerly of Theater Oobleck, play the two devils.

Before hearing Villafane speak, Thomas had followed the example of the Bread and Puppet Theatre, a New York collective inspired by the social-activist theories of Herbert Marcuse. They create huge pageants, perform them for free, and distribute free bread at performances. Thomas and his collaborators in Red Moon Theatre at one time made similar gigantic papier-mache puppets. In fact their studio--a storefront in West Town--is jammed to the ceiling with huge hands and heads and diminutive papier-mache marionettes; stuck in a corner near the ceiling is a 12-foot-high ear, easily large enough for a person to curl up in. Red Moon used these puppets to stage pageants with large casts. A few years ago they performed a version of Moby Dick on North Avenue beach with huge puppets hung from long poles carried by the cast; they charged no admission. But eventually the effort these pageants required wore Thomas down, and he looked for a way to make puppet shows with fewer people.

Villafane helped make Thomas aware of puppets' uncanny power. "Every puppet has a character that is possessed," Thomas says. "In China, the feeling that puppets are possessed is so strong that when a puppet is stored to move it to another place, its head is separated from its body. It's like the Dracula myth: a puppet is undead. When you decapitate it, you cancel its power." The things Thomas was beginning to think about puppetry, devils, and demonic possession began to seem very distant from the social activism of the Bread and Puppet Theatre.

But the unquiet ghosts of social responsibility returned to haunt Thomas. Some of his collaborators have had misgivings about the violence in Red Devil Green Devil, which will be seen by children. Thomas insists that kids enjoy stage violence, and anyway, when puppets hit each other it's funny. "Kids like the Terminator because he kills everyone in the movie. When the Terminator kills someone, it's serious. But Punch kills someone or hits them over the head with a stick, it's just funny." Thomas points out that the devils in this show use physical violence only once--mostly they just play tricks on each other. Thomas was also careful to give Red Devil Green Devil a happy ending.

Watching the show myself I tried to decide whether it was too violent, but my thoughts went in a different direction. One scene--the two devils wrestling over a treasure chest--revived a clear memory of fighting with my older brother over a baseball mitt when I was a boy. Children have an almost endless desire for attention, love, and things. The devilry of the famous puppets, from Punch to Wile E. Coyote, may simply personify children's unbounded egos. Parents may be frightened of their children's lust, but the children seem to enjoy seeing their unacceptable impulses acted out.

Red Moon Theatre will perform Red Devil Green Devil Saturday and Sunday, May 1 and 2, at 2 during the "Nights of the Blue Rider Festival" (through June 27) at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted. Tickets are $5; $3 for children. Call 733-4668. It will also be performed at the Organic Theater, 3319 N. Clark, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2, May 8-30; $7 for adults, $5 for kids 12 and under. Call 327-5588. Garcia Lorca's marionette plays are currently being staged by Synergy Theatre, 1753 N. Damen, under the title The Marriage of Cristobal and Dona Rosita (adaptation by artistic director James B. Lasko), Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 4 through June 13 (no shows May 28-30). Tickets are $12-$15; call 975-1703.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

Add a comment