puppet theater

Amelia Earhart (and puppets, too)

Northwest Children's Theater's "Starlings" take flight with a new musical about the aviator pioneer and other women heroes of the sky

If you haven’t seen a previous production featuring the Starlings, Northwest Children’s Theater’s “all bird, all puppet acting troupe,” you might be in for a surprise with Amelia Earhart’s First Flight. Whether that surprise is pleasant or not probably depends on a couple of things: how much you were hoping for a more straightforward take on the life of Amelia Earhart, and how good your sense of humor is.

I’ll cast my vote right here: Overall, the one-hour production is a delight. It moves so quickly your head will spin, but in a good way. And, if you’re thinking only young kids will enjoy this one (the company recommends it for ages 4 and up), think again: On the way out of the theater the afternoon we saw it, two teenagers were talking about how they’d enjoyed it much more than they should have – and it was one of the teens’ second time seeing it.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Amelia Earhart! Photo © 2017 David Kinder

The NWCT Starlings are a group of colorful birds who also happen to be theater performers. The magic starts for the younger set the moment you step inside Northwest Children’s Theater’s space on Northwest Everett Street. Colorful bird puppets are everywhere: taking tickets, directing people to and from the restroom, guiding lost patrons to their seats, sitting down in the row with you and having a chat. They might even ask permission to perch on your arm (and they’ll reciprocate by letting you pet their feathers, if you ask).

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Puppet see, puppet do

In the new world of impulsive white-guy supremacy, the gleeful hand-to-hand combat of "Hand to God" suddenly takes a menacing twist

The pew-like audience seating in Triangle Productions’ performance space, The Sanctuary, is fitting for Hand to God, Robert Askins’ church-set dark comedy that opens Triangle’s 2017-18 season. Director and designer Donald Horn’s set perfectly captures the wholesome tackiness of a church classroom, a scene ripe for disruption. And such disruption ensues when teenage Jason begins to realize that Tyrone, the sock puppet he made in his mom’s after-school Bible puppetry class, has taken on a life of its own.

By hand possessed: Caleb Sohigan plays Jason, whose hand puppet Tyrone takes on a wicked life of his own. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

Tyrone rips chaotically and hilariously through Jason’s precariously balanced relationships: his mom, still grieving her husband and Jason’s father’s recent death; the girl he has a crush on; the class bully; the slightly smarmy pastor. Tyrone says all the things you’re not supposed to say, does all the things you’re not supposed to do, expresses all the wants you’re not supposed to have. He is, as the monologues that bookend the play suggest, an expression of humanity’s true nature, before some jerk (Tyrone uses a different word) made up the idea of good and evil, God and Satan.

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‘La Belle’: a beauty of a Beauty

Imago's bold and charming "La Belle: Lost in the Automaton" retells the age-old "Beauty and the Beast" as a steampunk vaudeville (with puppets)

The tale, with its many themes and variations, is hundreds of years old, at least. A woman, an embodiment of purity and innocence, is forced into the company of a frightening Other, something primal, whether animal or spirit, something dark and debased. Yet there is recognition and love, trial and transformation. Hidden natures are revealed. Opposites balance and resolve.

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve crystallized it in 1740 as La Belle et la Bête. It may be best known by many from Jean Cocteau’s luminous, numinous 1946 film of that same name.  To many more, its image is fixed as a Disney product, 1991’s animated mass-market musical Beauty and the Beast.

Jim Vadala and Justine Davis: the beast and the beauty aboard ship. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Perhaps future generations, though, will think of the story and imagine not forests and castles but the grimy engine room of a coal-powered steamship. Their memories will be filled not with Disney’s storybook colors or Cocteau’s poetic cinematic effects but with a more immediate kind of artistic magic: puppets and automatons and actors on a stage.

They’ll think of Imago.

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