Puppets Take Centerstage With Some Strings Attached

With its roots in ancient culture, including ivory and clay figures found in Egyptian tombs, puppetry has long been employed in storytelling including the theater.

Terracotta Ancient Greek dolls. Exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Room 56. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, November 11 2009.

Both Aristotle and Plato in ancient Greece, referenced puppets in their writing and many historians believe puppets were “actors” long before humans stepped onto the stage.

From hand puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets and marionettes, the art of puppetry in the theater has evolved and appeared in every culture from medieval Italy and France where they were used in Christian morality plays to China where light was cast on translucent paper to create dazzling shadow shows; and 17th century Great Britain, where Punch and Judy showcased the comical – and violent—antics of a married couple. Originally marionettes, the characters later became hand puppets because the fighting movements kept tangling marionette strings.

A photographic reproduction of an oil painting depicting puppet theater, circa 1770.

The evolution also includes Bunraku, nearly human-sized wooden puppets revered in Japanese culture, to papier-mache marionettes that are part of mid-20th century Mexican folklore. Taking a more modern turn, puppets found popularity on Broadway in starring roles, most notably Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors and multiple characters in Disney’s The Lion King.

The cast of Jobsite Theater’s Hand to God.

Jobsite Theater, on Feb. 24 – March 14, will try its hand at puppetry when it presents the irreverent Hand to God, about a young man who joins a Christian puppet ministry and contends with Tyrone, a puppet with a mind and mouth of its own.

The show, chockfull of off-beat humor, was on Broadway in 2015 and nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Hand to God is just one of several plays and musicals where the puppet characters found the spotlight on Broadway. Here they are, with a few strings attached:

Anna Maria Alberghetti as Lili in the Broadway musical Carnival!.

Carnival! (1961)
Puppets are key to the storytelling in this musical about an orphan, Lili, who joins a traveling carnival. She is befriended by a puppeteer, who because of injuries, can only interact with Lili through his puppets. The love story between the two plays out through his multiple hand puppets that each express a part of their operator’s psyche.

The Audrey II puppet and Hunter Foster in the 2003 Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Little Shop of Horrors (2003)
Audrey II is the completely diabolical, blood drinking, alien Venus Flytrap-type plant that likes to consume humans for breakfast, lunch and dinner, much to the chagrin of Seymour who is charged with keeping her fed. To bring a giant plant to the stage, producers turned to puppeteer Martin Robinson who is best known for being the man inside Mr. Snuffleupagus among other characters from Sesame Street.

Avenue Q (2003)
They may have a look similar to Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, but the rod and live-hand puppets living on Avenue Q are foul-mouthed and every day’s letters are S, E, and X. A spoof of the children’s show, the 2004 Tony®-winning musical did provide lessons in “adulting” and received accolades for its treatment of homosexuality, racism and pornography.

The Lion King (1997)
Based on the popular animated Disney movie, The Lion King is now the longest running musical to utilize puppets. Tony® winner, director and visual artist Julie Taymor and her crew designed masks and puppets that brought to life the lions, gazelles, hyenas, cheetahs, giraffes, birds and a very large elephant of The Pridelands. Adapting Bunraku techniques that keep the performers visible, the Timon the meerkat puppet, for example, attaches to the actor in three places, allowing movement of the character’s mouth arms and feet.

The life-sized horse puppets in War Horse are controlled by three actors: two operate the legs and a third controls the head and neck, with all three providing sound effects. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

War Horse (2011)
This Best Play Tony® winner tells the story of a young man and his beloved horse who are separated when each is called to serve in World War I. Obviously unable to have a live horse on stage, Joey, the title character, is portrayed from foal to adult by up-to five visible puppeteers, made by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. The puppet and puppeteers in tandem were so masterful, including lifelike ear and tail twitches, the audience was able to fully emotionally connect to Joey.

Frozen (2018)
This popular Disney movie turned stage musical reimagined two of its characters as puppets – Olaf the snowman and Sven the reindeer. Olaf, too, is a bunraku-style puppet with its operator in full view of the audience. The key to making this style work is for the performer to seamlessly blend with its character as he stays busy using triggers to operate his feet, mouth, eyes and arms. Sven appears as a full-blown reindeer with the actor completely hidden inside the eight-and-a-half-foot long puppet. Sven doesn’t speak but he still emotes through his eyes and ears from levers and controls worked from inside the costume.

King Kong (2018)
According to Entertainment Weekly, at a preview of the musical King Kong in 2018, the standing ovation went to the 2,000-pound puppet. The animatronic creation stood 20-feet tall, weighed 2,400 pounds and took a curtain call with the 10 actors/puppeteers who operated its limbs with a pulley system plus three off-stage “voodoo operators” who controlled other robotics off stage. The show ran 399 performances, after the ape got decent reviews, but the musical around it had a monkey on its back – it just wasn’t good.

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