Xperimental Puppet Theater

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If you didn’t know, the Center for Puppetry Arts has an adult series of shows for audiences 18 and older. As a part of this series, they host Xperimental Puppetry Theater (XPT), a program of installation art, short puppet theater pieces and short film, created by various artists. It. Is. Wonderful.

What is XPT? It is an annual showcase of awesome. No, really. Each year they take applications from creators and puppeteers, they start creating the short pieces in January or February, and by May they have magic to share with the public. (Though, given the short time span, some of the films are pre-made). This year, XPT comprised one installation, five short theater pieces, and four short films.

The fantastic part of XPT is that Michael Haverty, XPT Program Director, actively seeks out a range of creators—those who have been in puppetry for years, those who have no prior puppetry experience, and folks from other forms of art and entertainment. It truly is experimental, and I found it moving, entertaining, and brilliant. Shadow puppets, body puppets, stop-motion animation, glove puppets, narration, traditional acting, audience participation, silent performance—there are so, so many ways to approach telling a story through puppetry, and it felt like we touched on most of them in one evening.

For someone whose primary exposure to puppetry is Jim Henson, Star Wars, and Saturday morning children’s television, XTP was a reminder that this is a powerful medium for telling moving emotional stories as well as lighter tales. Puppets are for grown-ups, too!

The selected pieces explored a range of subjects, some fun and lighter-hearted, some quite serious. “Rapunzel’s Flight” was breathtaking stop-motion and tremendous fun. “Taming the Lion” was a riff on what I think of as classic puppet theater and asked the audience to get involved and evoked much laughter. “Opening Day,” one of the films, had us gasping, laughing, and cheering on the characters as they struggled to open boxes containing something very important. “Professor Greg’s Laboratory” explored experimentation, science, and love to great effect.

Woven in with the delightful and possibly silly were thoughtful and sobering pieces. “Prologue” was almost absolutely silent performance art that was beautiful and joyful. The short film “Maiden to Monster” explored Medusa’s transformation into the gorgon, revealing the woman behind the scales and snakes. A few of the works addressed disease and illness. “BeeSting,” one of the longer films, had both spoken word and animation components with a heavy-hitting message. “White Horse,” which opened the night, explored the relationship of a girl with her absent father, who has been struggling with addiction. The final piece of the night, “Leukos,” particularly moved me. It told the story of a man dying from leukemia and was incredible. “Leukos” was stark and beautiful, and as it closed it was impossible not to think “wow.”

At the end of the show, the audience was invited to stay for a talk back/Q&A session with the directors and creators of the ten pieces. If ever you have this opportunity, stay. Everyone there was willing to answer questions about how they approached their pieces, what inspired them, what they learned from the experience, and were open and friendly.

As a happy bonus, Walter–the giant lion puppet from “Taming the Lion”–was out in the parking lot after the show, reducing a bunch of sophisticated arts-savvy patrons to grinning kids who couldn’t wait to have their pictures taken with a huge crocheted lion puppet.

If you’re curious about brilliant puppetry that challenges the stereotypes we hold onto from childhood, consider the rest of The Center for Puppetry Arts’ adult series, which includes the National Puppet Slam 2012 on August 3 & 4, and The Ghastly Dreadfuls in October. Tickets for shows generally run between $12 and $25. You won’t regret the visit. Information about their series of adult shows can be found at http://www.puppet.org/perform/adult.shtml

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