For two decades, Sandglass Theater, the justly world-renowned puppetry troupe headquartered in Putney, Vermont, has produced an international festival that serves as a gathering and showcase for masters of the form. The tenth biennial “Puppets in the Green Mountains” festival, Sept. 20-23 in Putney and Brattleboro, offers a variety of cross-disciplinary performances, some “for all ages” and some primarily for grownups.
The performers, from Taiwan, the UK, Canada and the U.S., represent the wide range of vision and invention in contemporary puppetry and narrow the divide between what we think of as “puppet shows” and human-scale theater. An umbrella theme, “Opening the Doors,” focuses on “fostering a spirit of inclusion and play” in ticketed performances as well as workshops, community dialogues, exhibits and “a unique puppet slam.”
With one exception, all the performances are new to me. Here’s what I’m looking forward to, based on the festival’s descriptions.
A Hunger Artist, based on Franz Kafka’s short story, finds the title character, once a sideshow attraction who wowed the crowds with his feats of prolonged fasting, sitting in his cage and mourning the fickleness of public tastes. “What begins as a simple nostalgic story transforms into a startlingly inventive trip into the nature of memory, art, performance and spectatorship.”
The darkly comic piece, performed by Jonathan Levin of New York’s Sinking Ship company, employs physical theater, puppetry, Victorian miniatures, music and movement to “throw light onto the extent of self-deprivation that a person or artist will go to in order to survive, and the phenomenon of spectacle that we as audience consume, exploit and forget.”
Babylon: Journeys of Refugees is a Sandglass Theater original that premiered in Putney last year. Based in part on interviews with refugees recently resettled in southern Vermont, the show looks at the trauma of flight and the challenges facing both the refugees and the communities they arrive in.
Seven full-size puppets represent asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Burundi. The title, evoking images of a great city gone to ruin, serves as “a metaphor for the destruction and destabilization that has led much of the world into a refugee crisis of mythic proportions.”
Meet Fred comes from the Welsh company Hijinx, part of whose mission (and connection to the festival’s theme of inclusion) is to involve actors who have learning disabilities. The work “makes much of the skills and raw talent of people who often get overlooked in today’s world.”
That’s true of the title character, too. “Fred just wants to be part of the real world, get a job, meet a girl. But, being a little cloth puppet, he must face incredible prejudice every day.” The dependence and interdependence in the puppet/puppeteer relationship “mirrors the situation that many people with learning and developmental differences face in their everyday life. The show walks a line between a strong political message and a hilarity that is all the more ridiculous when seen through the eyes of the puppet hero.”
The performance comes with a warning: “Contains strong language and puppet nudity.”
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play most closely fits the “all ages” category. It brings to life Chester Brown’s graphic novel about the leader of a 19th-century rebellion of indigenous people in western Canada in defense of their lands and culture. The life-size two-dimensional puppets in effect rise from the pages of the book to enact Riel’s passion – passion in both senses: he’s about to be hanged for his devotion to the cause.
The puppets “play with our notions of what puppets can do, revealing a rugged and treacherous landscape both in life and politics.” The performance, from RustWerk Refinery of Montreal, is “an epic live-action version of the comic strip that is part adventure story, part history lesson … a bold portrayal of a young Canada going through some of the most difficult growing pains ever.”
Two shows fill the bill on the mostly-but-not-just-for-kids end of the festival’s spectrum.
Mr Ruraru’s Yard, from the Taiwanese company Puppet and Its Double, “brings a Japanese children’s book to life in an evocative piece about an old man who tries to keep his backyard tame and free of nature and its critters.” It’s told without words and with abstract pieces of driftwood representing the animals in the yard. The troupe “bridges worlds by blending contemporary puppet forms with recognizably Taiwanese cultural identity.”
The Joshua Show: Episode 2 presents Joshua Holden, “known throughout U.S. puppetry circles as the most sympathetic, honest, and inspiring performer for children since Mr. Rogers.” His puppet cast includes grumpy Mr. Nicolas, who “can never quite seem to find his place in the world. His frank discussions with his puppeteer are warm, funny, and very real.”
Master puppeteer Tracy Broyles gives the festival’s keynote address (free), offering “a path to opening doors, unmasking accessibility, and pulling the right strings to a more just and joyous world.”
There’s also a special pre-festival screening of The Dark Crystal, the 1982 Jim Henson/Frank Oz animatronic fantasy, at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theater on Sept. 19 (separate ticketing).
Performances at various venues in Brattleboro and Putney, Sept. 20-23. Info and tickets here.
Photos courtesy of the artists and Sandglass Theater
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