Giving souls to bits of wood and fabric


You can tell from Betsy Rosen's squint that the moment isn't quite right. The scene - a crucial one in her new play, Dis/Appearing - calls for two characters to part, and one actor is physically releasing the other too soon.

"Could `Pedestrian' hold onto Fishy a little longer?" asks Rosen, 22, director and co-author of the original work her troupe will perform at the Capital Fringe Festival next week. "That would change the moment, wouldn't it?"

At its best, drama is a subtle art, its moments sculpted by collaboration between director and actors. But what happens when the performers can't even speak? The star of Dis/Appearing is a wood-and-gauze figure, his leading lady a fabric fish and Rosen - a Baltimore County native - a veteran in the increasingly popular world of puppetry. "[Puppetry] isn't just marionettes in a box anymore," says Rosen, who first tried her hand at it in the second grade. "It involves dance, sculpture, movement, character-acting techniques, storytelling and more. It's a bit like painting a picture in motion."

Festival-goers will glimpse the lively, often poignant form when Rosen and the Lost and Found Puppeteers offer five performances of Dis/Appearing. In the piece, "Pedestrian" - a 3-foot-tall puppet operated in the Japanese bunraku style - tries to escape the ennui of his daily life with a stroll across the Atlantic Ocean.

Audience members can decide for themselves whether the walk is literal or figurative, Rosen says, but as the human members of her troupe - six current and former theater majors at University of Maryland, College Park - manipulate the characters, Pedestrian's doggedly wobbly journey evokes hope, risk, loss, sadness and redemption, all without the input of living thespians.

The work is gripping, given that Pedestrian himself is (to borrow from W.B. Yeats) little more than "a tattered coat upon a stick." But the effects are no surprise to Rosen. "You don't need a lot of fancy equipment," she says during a rehearsal break, "to get these effects. When the puppeteers have the right positioning, technique and movement, they can put breath into non-living objects. That can literally affect the way the human beings in the audience breathe, the way they feel. We're hoping for a lot of moments like that."

Rosen's own journey in puppetry began at 8, when her mother, an amateur actress, got her involved in Open Space, a community arts program in Reisterstown that features puppetry, writing and traditional theater for kids and adults. "I was exposed to so many aspects of puppetry there," Rosen says. "I learned how to make puppets, how to design and paint them, how to do costumes. I got pretty good at manipulating them. My life was about theater and puppetry." At Maryland, where she found herself getting cast in fewer "main-stage" shows than she expected, Rosen decided to return to her first love.

There she happened to meet Eric Van Wyk, a graduate student in scene design who was also interested in the art form. They attended an intensive seminar on campus, then an immersion course at the Sandglass Theater in Vermont, where instructors schooled them in storytelling techniques. "That got to the basic questions," Rosen says. "Where do you start [a story]? How do you build it? Why does it require puppets to be told? We used all that in creating [Dis/Appearing]."

The pair based their story on a short poem. In "Walking Across the Atlantic," the poet Billy Collins wondered how a man walking on water might look from a fish's point of view. From those images, Rosen, Van Wyk and several acting colleagues extrapolated Dis/Appearing. Drawing on bunraku, hand puppetry and shadow puppetry traditions (in the latter, puppeteers cast shadows across moving fabric), the piece presents a sort of Everyman trying to find a balance between his fantasies and the real world he lives in, and returning changed and refreshed.

To Rosen, puppetry is anything but a "fringe" form nowadays. It has "gotten huge," she says, in Washington, D.C., and in New York, where Avenue Q - a sort of raunchy Sesame Street for slackers - has won plaudits on Broadway. In New England, home to numerous puppetry companies, "people say if you're not a carpenter, you're probably a puppeteer" these days.

And Rosen, a Washington-area stage actress, makes one of the decisions that still shape the evolving piece that is Dis/Appearing. Pedestrian, clutching Fishy underwater, is to hold on for another half-second. When they separate, the moment is richer. "That's puppetry," Rosen says. "It's potent."

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