By RAVEN SNOOK
Read more on this month's mini-boom in puppetry for adults
Puppet shows aren't just child's play. From the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q and War Horse to the genre-busting works of Obie and Drama Desk Award-winning Basil Twist, many puppet performances are being created for grown-ups these days. That's one of the reasons Twist---a third-generation puppeteer whose work has been seen both on Broadway and off---partnered with HERE to found the Dream Music Puppetry Program. He wanted to help incubate innovative, multidisciplinary puppet works aimed at adult audiences.
The program is housed in HERE's intimate Dorothy B. Williams theatre, which was constructed with puppets in mind. (In a lovely testament to his family history, Twist's grandfather's vintage marionettes are on permanent display just outside the door.) Twist's iconic underwater puppet show <i>Symphonie Fantastique</i> christened the space in 1998, and every year since, he has presented imaginative productions that explode any lingering notion that puppets are only for kids.
The program's current offering, The Pigeoning, was created and directed by Robin Frohardt. A Bay Area transplant now based in New York City, Frohardt has extensive experience as a puppet maker and set designer, and she has collaborated on a wide range of projects like the Empire Drive-In art installation (late of Queens' New York Hall of Science) and the site-specific subway saga IRT: A Tragedy in Three Stations. But The Pigeoning, an insightful comedy about Frank, an '80s office worker who slowly descends into madness, marks her first full-length puppet show.
Frank has actually existed in different incarnations since 2006, when he debuted at Oakland's Apocalypse Puppet Theater, a traveling troupe founded by Frohardt, composer Freddi Price (who supplies the live soundtrack for The Pigeoning), and two other local artists. "We were doing these 10-minute puppet pieces about the end of the world," says Frohardt. "We had this crazy old man character with a 'The End Is Near' sign. He didn't say anything; he just came out when we were changing the scenery and was like our mascot. I always had this idea of writing his back story, how he ended up that way."
While Frank's appearance has changed since then (he's much younger and, at least at the outset, cleaner), he still doesn't talk. But his expressive face and figure speak volumes. A bunraku-style puppet controlled by multiple puppeteers, Frank has a silent comedian quality. He sports Coke bottle glasses and a distrustful scowl, and he wears his off-the-rack suit like skin. He also has a desperate need to control the world around him, which causes him to lose his grip on reality. And while his downhill spiral, which includes spying on birds and prepping for a great flood, is played for laughs, it's also unnervingly relatable. We're all just a moment away, the show suggests, from falling apart.
Frohardt acknowledges that contemporary concerns inspired The Pigeoning, like the flooding from Hurricane Sandy and the challenges of living in NYC, but she chose to set the piece in the 80s because of the aesthetics. "There's something very comical about that decade," she says. "The office has this drab fluorescent lighting and gray Venetian blinds, and Frank uses all of this period technology (like a tape recorder and a Polaroid camera) in his investigations. I wanted our show to be analog. The tools he uses look very humorous to us today in the digital age."
The chosen era also allowed Frohardt to film a series of 80s-esque office safety videos, which are, appropriately enough, shown on VHS. "They're a way to poke fun at the idea that an office can be a dangerous place when it's the world outside that's scary," she says.
Both Frohardt and Twist believe that puppetry has less of a just-for-kids stigma than it did just a decade or so ago. Twist asserts, "In the increasingly high-tech world we live in, on a basic level people need to connect to the simple magic that's in puppetry now more than ever."
Frohardt echoes him, saying, "Certain artists like Julie Taymor using puppets on Broadway definitely opened the doors for artists like me to have my work taken more seriously. I studied painting in school, but I have a history in theatre, too. Puppetry is an awesome way to meld art and storytelling and performing and music---and create a whole new world."
Although Frank's journey could be interpreted as tragic, Frohardt wholeheartedly believes The Pigeoning has a happy ending. "He's free," she says cheerily. "He's let go of all of his fear. I admit there's a lot of me in Frank. The big irony being that I'm a total control freak, especially about the show."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others
Photo by Richard Termine