As you enter the tiny downstairs Dorothy B. Williams Theater at HERE Performance Space, you’re handed a pair of binoculars. It’s not that you’re so far away from the stage, it’s that the stages used are quite small. Great Small Works’ Sixth International Toy Theater Festival is devoted to performances that breathe new life into an art form that is too often neglected.
The genre arose in 19th-century Europe as a kind of home entertainment based upon popular shows playing in the legitimate theater houses; children and puppet theater aficionados could purchase cardboard sets and cut-out figures and re-enact the shows in their very own living rooms. The practice fell out of favor with the rise of radio and TV but is kept alive by groups such as Great Small Works, which hosts the festival. Both adaptations of classic plays and original works are included, and the offerings differ at various performances.
The show I attended featured children’s book illustrator Brian Selznick in an unconventional and magical toy theater production of “The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins,” adapted from the Caldecott-winning children’s book that he illustrated. Rather than use a singular stage, Selznick converted an antique table and multiple cabinets and books that open up to reveal elaborate set pieces, including a cut-away view of Central Park that shows a dinosaur buried amidst a network of roots, mud, and stone.
Selznick doesn’t say a word but nevertheless commands attention through his dancing eyes and magnetic stage presence. Like an expert magician, he leads the audience through the story; miniature placards or scrolling screens of text add to the narrative. A live video feed projected on a white screen behind the puppeteer blows up the action, so it isn’t really necessary to use the binoculars to appreciate the fine detail work that Selznick has put into his miniature designs.
Robert Een’s accompanying music perfectly captures the mood of the piece and Selznick times several of his movements to coincide with dramatic moments in the score. Particularly effective is an Irish folk-flavored tune that accompanies the presentation’s final moments; the melancholy vocals hit just the right note of wonder and sadness.
Other acts on the bill were hard-pressed to match the quality of Selznick’s work. On the level of craftsmanship, Robert Poulter’s sets for “The Loyal 47” are quite elegant. Based upon a Japanese Kabuki play, the production incorporates miniature sliding screens and backdrops in the style of classical Japanese painting. Unfortunately, Poulter’s adaptation lacks the theatrical vigor necessary to bring his sets to life; a pre-recorded voiceover by the artist was almost painful to listen to as Poulter droned on in a dull tone and mispronounced Japanese names.
Faring slightly better were the Insurrection Landscapers. The Vermont-based troupe, however, was severely handicapped by the fact that one of its members was out sick. The remaining two, Adam Cook and Jason Norris, did their best to continue on despite having to read lines from a script (they sometimes lost their place) while propping up multiple puppets (which they occasionally failed to accomplish). The show itself, titled “A Historic Reenactment of World War III,” is entertaining and whimsical. It imagines a future in which robots take over the world and release weapons of mass destruction upon humankind. The work may have had the potential to be an incisive satire on the dangers of over-reliance upon technology but, unfortunately, its sophomoric humor outweighs any kind of political message.
This was more than made up for by the Boston wing of Great Small Works, which presented “Three Books in the Garden,” a wonderful chamber play with music and puppets. Although not at the level of Selznick’s presentation, it nevertheless is a compellingly theatrical piece that opens with a song by puppeteers John Bell, Trudi Cohen, and Isaac Bell. “As we watch the world turn from intolerance to war,” the trio sings, “we know a time of tolerance existed before.” The play brings us back to a time when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in harmony in 11th century Spain. Different puppet figures are introduced to tell this amazing story; most of the voices are performed by John Bell, who seems to particularly delight in the lilting cadences of Michael the Scot. This character describes how a Jew translated ancient Greek texts from Arabic so that Europe would once again gain access to a literary heritage that it had lost but that was preserved in other parts of the world.
Set pieces for this work include a Mosque with Moorish columns, a grand library with an astonishing use of perspective, and a garden in which the puppeteers are able to simulate both lightning and raindrops. The anti-war sentiment of the piece gives it additional depth and resonance, yet it never seems heavy-handed.
Different toy theater productions continue throughout the festival; upcoming highlights include a new work by master puppeteer Basil Twist on January 10 & 11. In addition, HERE plays host to a temporary Toy Theater Museum in its galleries. The exhibit includes everything from traditional toy theaters, modeled after European houses, to avant-garde works incorporating TV monitors. Many of the pieces are interactive, allowing viewers to look inside or manipulate portions of the art work to tell a narrative story. Wandering through the exhibition is the perfect way to begin your toy theater experience and see the history and potential of this nearly forgotten genre of entertainment.