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Paulanne Simmons

It's not exactly Howdy Doody

"Portraits--Night & Day"

Second Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival
Theater for the New City
155 First Ave. (at East 10th St.)
Dec. 1-4 and 8-11, Thu, Fri., Sat. at 8 and 9:30 p.m., Sun. at 3, 4 and 8 p.m.
$15, Admission includes TNC Passport to Puppet Theater, good for $2 discount at all subsequent puppet shows at TNC this season. (212) 254-1109 and www.theaterforthe newcity.net
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Dec. 2, 2005

It's only been during the last twenty or so years that puppetry in the United States has come into its own as an adult art form with a mature message. But although "Avenue Q" managed to steal the Tony away from "Wicked" in 2004, most people still see puppet theater as mostly suitable for light themes and simple stories.

The Second Annual Voice 4 Puppetry Festival at Theater for the New City this December gives the lie to such beliefs. The ten-day festival celebrates the work of innovative and experimental puppeteers whose offerings may not be easily understood by children or adults.

The festival was kicked off on Dec. 1 with "Portraits – Night & Day" and "The Adventures of Charcoal Boy."

Portraits is an installation/performance piece that uses masks, objects, fabric, text, movement and music to tell the story of two women: one privileged and white, the other struggling, misunderstood and black. It was created by the Obie Award winner Karen Kandel, an artistic associate with Mabou Mines.

Although much of the text is beautifully evocative and sometimes genuinely poetic, and the music and movement is extremely engaging, Kandel does not work with the puppets (two heads attached to flowing fabrics) anywhere nearly enough to qualify this piece as puppet theater.

Kandel hold the black and white puppets, wraps them in flowing fabric and suspends them overhead. But they never become human or even develop personalities of their own. There's no doubt that Kandel knows how to tell a story. But in this case the puppets seem more accidental than integral.

The Adventures of Charcoal Boy

The Adventures of Charcoal Boy, developed by Sarah Provost, Eric Novak and Elyas Khan at The Arts at St. Ann's Puppet Lab and the Mabou Mines Resident Artists Program, has some wonderful elements. Khan has composed a jazzy score that should keep heads bobbing and bodies swaying, and the puppet singer performs them with a truly human touch. But the story – which concerns a tree that is hit by lightning and ends up with charcoal feet – is complicated, obscure, and probably incomprehensible without program notes.

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