Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Table at Ringling International Arts Fest

Moses with puppeteer Laura Caldow


I have a crush.  His name is Moses.  He is a table puppet.

Perhaps a bit of an explanation is in order.

Last week was the 6th Annual Ringling International Arts Festival.  The Festival welcomes performers from around the world to introduce Southwest Florida audiences to dance, theater and music productions that push the envelope a bit.  I was able to make four of the seven shows.

Tangram was a combination of juggling and dance that left me a bit baffled.  Keigwin + Co. featured a contemporary dance company whose work was beautiful and funny and thoroughly engaging.  (Just to give you a sense of how contemporary the choreography was, several pieces featured a mattress as a prop that the dancers jumped over and fell on during the course of the dance.)  "The Intergalactic Nemesis - Book 1:  Target Earth" was part old style radio show (complete with a Foley artist), part sci-fi, part graphic novel.  It was very creative, and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

Then there was "The Table" by Blind Summit.  Blind Summit's mission is to "present new puppets, in new places, in new ways, to new audiences."  Traditionally, the mention of a puppet show calls to mind Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop.  With the hilarious "Avenue Q," though, the art of puppetry has been elevated to adult theater.  I also was fortunate to see "The Winged" at last summer's ACCT WorldFest hosted by Venice Theatre. It was a beautiful performance featuring lifesize puppets by Armenia's Yerevan State Puppet Theater.  I am now wide open to being entertained by a puppet, and Moses captured my heart.
Moses post-performance showing off for his adoring fans

From the opening moments of "The Table," I was in.  Mark Down, director of the show and one of the puppeteers, explained a bit about table puppetry and how the show came about.  As Mark went through his explanation, Moses warmed up, rolling his neck and shaking out his body.  The audience was in the palm of his little hand.

Table puppets are different from hand puppets or life size puppets or marionettes.  They require three people to operate.  Mark was responsible for his head and left hand (and the hilarious dialogue).  Laura Caldow was bent over during the entire show manipulating Moses' feet.  And Sean Garratt was in charge of Moses' right hand and his rear end (which got in more than a little gyrating).

Being a table puppet can be exhausting
"The Table" was commissioned by the Jewish Community Centre in London to celebrate the Passover Seder.  I hope they knew what they were getting into!  The show is done improv style, so there is no script that explains Moses' role in the bible.  Sure, there were some references to Deuteronomy and Moses climbing Mount Nebo and "epic biblical puppetry," but most of the show was pretty random.  At one point Moses raised the question as to what made him a "Jewish" puppet.  He is, as he pointed out, made of cardboard.

Throughout the show, Moses blatantly flirted with a woman in the front row.  I can't remember her name, so I'll call her Eileen.  Eileen caught his eye from the start, and he heckled her and asked if she would be willing to "give it a go" (with much suggestive hip waggling).  It was truly hilarious. And then the plot thickened.

It turned out that Eileen has some experience with"string puppets" (marionettes to us lay folks).  When Sean went offstage looking for a ladder (don't ask), the puppeteers needed a third to keep Moses in action.  After much prodding, Eileen came onstage, only to pull Moses' hand right off his arm.  This was definitely not part of the plan, and the puppeteers were besides themselves laughing as they tried to work out how to move forward.  

Getting acquainted with Moses (with Laura and Sean)
After the show, the audience had a chance to get up close and personal with Moses.  I deliberately waited until the end so that I could get to know him a little better.  (You might notice that I have my hand on his little bum.)  I learned that the show started at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (no surprise there) and that a particular puppet head can be used for approximately 25 performance.  (The body can usually go for 100 performances unless an unwitting audience member rips part of it off.)  The cast was personable and enthusiastic and clearly loved the reaction that their show had received. 

"The Table" was truly a fun and unique afternoon of theater.  It was a reminder to be open to experiences that might sound a bit out there.  You never know when you're going to fall in love. 





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