Puppets convey serious ideas

November 30, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Stories from Here'

When: Tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m., matinee Sunday at 3 p.m.

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

Tickets: $10-$16.

Call: 752-8558.

** 1/2 Puppetry is not all Punch-and-Judy any more. The first half of the Jottay Theatre's "Stories from Here" is about a woman so preoccupied with the Persian Gulf crisis that she has a nervous breakdown.

This isn't the easiest subject to enact with expressionless puppets, and the half-hour work, titled "The House" and written by Jottay members Neill Bogan and Janie Geiser, is the less successful part of this double bill, currently at the Theatre Project. But it clues you in immediately that this New York-based troupe regards puppetry as a serious medium for conveying serious ideas.

Once that's established, you're ready for the highlight of the program: An adaptation of a story by Russell Banks called "The Fish." Actually, this isn't exclusively a puppetry piece. Besides various types of wooden puppets -- including a life-sized figure -- it includes a character played by an actress.

The story takes place in an unnamed Asian village under the control of a colonel, portrayed by the life-sized puppet, a boxy figure made of wood strips and operated by a puppeteer who stands behind it. The colonel, a Catholic, has become distressed by a large fish that lives in the local pond and is worshipped by Buddhist pilgrims.

The colonel orders his lieutenant, played by actress Pamella O'Connor, to destroy the fish. But after each effort at annihilation, the fish returns larger than ever, attracting more and more worshippers. The fish is an articulated puppet held aloft on rods, and by the time it achieves its full growth, it takes two puppeteers to manipulate it.

The irony of the story is that when the fish finally dies, it's not at the hands of the colonel who feared it, but as a result of the greed of the pilgrims who revered it.

I'm not sure why the lieutenant is played by an actress, or why the colonel is given such an inhuman form. Perhaps by making the pilgrim puppets more in keeping with the fish puppet, Jottay is saying that we can be more dangerous to ourselves than outsiders can. In any event, this is a tightly constructed tale, poignantly told.

"The House," on the other hand, is a meandering story that gives off conflicting messages. Vi, a housewife -- represented by a marionnette-like puppet operated by rods instead of strings -- is not only preoccupied by the Persian Gulf, she appears to have psychic powers capable of keeping missiles from hitting ships and planes. Or maybe she just thinks she has.

If Vi really does have these powers, the piece may be suggesting that an individual can make a difference. But then she is institutionalized, perhaps suggesting that you have to be crazy to worry about the Middle East. Oh yes, Vi is also preoccupied by local bus routes, suggesting heaven knows what.

Live actors would probably have trouble putting across this story; performed by puppets to a recording of Vi's voice, it's not only disjointed, but flat.

Still, the two pieces give a broad sample of Jottay's styles. And the use of live musical accompaniment is refreshing, although it would be nice to hear more Oriental influence in the music for "The Fish."

The Jottay Theatre is the first of five puppetry troupes the Theatre Project is presenting as part of a series in memory of Jim Henson. No doubt even more diversity is yet to come.

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