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Where to see marionettes and other puppets on stage, including cutting-edge shows for grown-ups
The heyday of the year-round, brick-and-mortar puppet theatre may have passed with the closing of Greenwich Village's Bil Baird Marionette Theater, where I got my first job, at age 11, as an usher. But you can still find plenty of puppets on NYC stages. There are two tiny theatres that remain dedicated to puppetry, one in Central Park, the other in Park Slope, both geared toward children. The more innovative puppet theatre, which is primarily for adults and sometimes called object theatre, has shifted to festivals at avant-garde havens.
There's also plenty of eye-popping puppetry on Broadway, notably in The Lion King, Beetlejuice, King Kong and Frozen, and The New Victory Theater and Teatro SEA often present puppet productions. If you want to keep up to date on all puppet-related events in New York, I recommend signing up for the Jim Henson Foundation's Puppet Happenings email list .
1. Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre
In Central Park at West 79th Street and West Drive
Frederick Law Olmsted, who co-designed Central Park with Calvert Vaux, placed the charming, Swedish-built cottage in the green space in 1877. Since 1947, it's served as the home base for the traveling CityParks PuppetMobile, a troupe that presents FREE performances in parks and rec centers throughout the five boroughs. In 1973, the City Parks Foundation constructed a permanent, sit-down marionette theatre inside the building, where hour-long shows, mostly fairy tales adapted with a modern twist, run year-round. There's even a front-row bench for very young theatregoers, so they'll have the best view in the house.
338 Sixth Avenue at 4th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn
Brooklynite Nicolas Coppola has been smitten with puppetry since the third grade, becoming a professional puppeteer at age 19 in 1954, and opening Puppetworks in 1980. Its location in family-friendly Park Slope makes it a rite of passage for neighborhood tots, who sit on a mat by the stage as they watch adaptations of classic fairy tales featuring quaint handmade wooden marionettes.
3. St. Ann's Warehouse Puppet Lab and LABAPALOOZA!
45 Water Street near Old Dock Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn
Cutting-edge culture hub St. Ann's had its first success with puppetry in 1983 with a puppet version of Gioachino Rossini's comic opera The Barber of Seville. Bread & Puppet Theater made St. Ann's its New York City home for years, as did celebrated experimental interdisciplinary artist Janie Geiser, who helped create its Puppet Lab in 1997. Over the course of nine months, participants meet weekly to develop new puppet and object theatre works. The program culminates each spring in the annual LABAPALOOZA! showcase.
4. La MaMa Puppet Festival
66 East 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue in the East Village
Experimental theatre mecca La MaMa began its love affair with the puppetry arts in 1962, when founder Ellen Stewart invited puppeteers from Korea to perform. A few years later, she asked Ralph Lee to create puppet pieces for the theatre; he went on to help launch the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 1973, which continues to showcase large masks and puppets in its annual procession. La MaMa Archives, which one can visit by appointment, is filled with wondrous and inventive puppets created for productions at the theatre over the decades. In 2004, it debuted the biennial La MaMa Puppet Festival, which showcases a range of boundary-pushing puppet works, both in form and content. At the 2018 edition, there were puppet shows that explored the killing of black men, the refugee crisis and disability.
5. HERE Arts Center Dream Music Puppetry
145 Sixth Avenue, entrance on Dominick Street in Hudson Square
Dream Music Puppetry was launched in 1998 under the direction of Basil Twist -- the only puppet artist ever to be named a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellow -- with his Obie-winning underwater spectacle Symphonie Fantastique. Every year, the program commissions and develops new, adult-aimed puppet-and-music works and presents them, either as full productions or as works in progress, in its downstairs Dorothy B. Williams Theatre. There's always a wide array of styles and subject matter. This past season, I saw two eerie works based on true stories: Ashes, by the Norwegian-French company Plexus Polaire, about a pyromaniac who destroyed his small village, and Nick Lehane's Chimpanzee about a monkey in captivity in a science lab.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Wunderkammer at La MaMa Puppet Festival 2018. Photo by Klaus Kühn.
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