These Puppet Shows Aren't for Kids
By JONATHAN MANDELL
Thursday, November 01, 2018  •  
Thu Nov 1, 2018  •  
Off-Off Broadway  •   0 comments Share This
"Puppetry may be a softer way to tell these stories. We're more willing to let our guard down."

La MaMa kicks off a monthlong festival of provocative puppet productions

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Food for the Gods is about the killing of black men; Exodus addresses the current refugee crisis; Blind is a solo work about disability. These may not sound like typical subjects for puppet shows, but little about the La MaMa Puppet Festival fits most audiences' preconceptions about the art form.

"With everything that's been happening, I want to respond to what's around us," says Denise Greber, the festival's director and curator. "I want to present stories that encourage people to be empathetic."

The eighth edition of the fest runs through November 25 and features 27 puppet shows presented in ten programs. The works are as short as five minutes and no longer than 75. Few have any dialogue; fewer offer straightforward narratives.

Greber says only two of the offerings are appropriate for kids: Don Quixote Takes New York (November 10-11) and Chicken Soup, Chicken Soup (November 17-18). All of the others examine grown-up, even disturbing issues. However, she points out that "puppetry may be a softer way to tell these stories. We're more willing to let our guard down. I know I dive right in."

'Don Quixote Takes New York;' photo by Theo Cote

The festival also highlights how wide-ranging the puppetry arts are, not just in terms of content but also style and execution. Audiences can catch that diversity in action at the La MaMa Puppet Slam (November 5), which is comprised of 13 shorts, and Jump Start (November 23-25) featuring six works in progress by established artists.

As forward-looking as the festival is, it is also steeped in the theatre's past. The event began in 2004 but La MaMa's involvement with the genre goes back more than a half-century. Its first puppet show, Pagoon Kang Wouk's Head Hunting, was imported from Korea in 1962, a year after the theatre was established by Ellen Stewart. A fashion designer before founding La MaMa, Stewart was reportedly fascinated by the ways puppets could be used to tell stories visually. In the late '60s, she invited Ralph Lee to collaborate on productions as a puppet maker, director and performer; he went on to launch the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 1973, which continues to showcase large masks and puppets in its annual procession. Now 82, Lee will be honored at La MaMa's Coffeehouse Chronicles on November 10 as part of the fest.

'Exodus;' photo by Philippe Van Bossche

Another key player in La MaMa's puppet history is Federico Restrepo, a dancer from Colombia. Inspired by a sculptor who worked with cotton, he fashioned a life-size cloth doll, attached it to his body and created a dance-theatre-puppet piece called Loco7.

Stewart first booked Restrepo in 1986 and he's been performing at La MaMa ever since; he also serves as the producing director of the Puppet Festival. His latest work, co-conceived with Greber, is the family-friendly Don Quixote Takes New York. This whimsical, modern-day riff on Miguel de Cervantes' novel chronicles the adventures of a Staten Islander who falls in love with the Statue of Liberty and does battle with the Coney Island Wonder Wheel.

Restrepo's storage room at La MaMa is packed with the characters he's created over the years. In addition to his Don Quixote puppets, including a wire mesh horse and donkey attached to scooters, there are life-size soldiers from a production of Antigone, huge papier-mâché human heads, golden-leaf lion busts, enormous foam-rubber feet and exotic birds. There's even that first goofy red cotton puppet, Loco7. Restrepo is still attached to it -- as is La MaMa to the puppetry arts.

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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: Blind at the La MaMa Puppet Festival. Photo by Patrick Argirakis.

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