Engrossing Puppet Cinema


Planet Egg
Directed and Conceived by Zvi Sahar
Produced by Ali Sky Bennett
HERE Theaters
April 6 through 8, 2012

A new sub-genre of puppetry called Puppet Cinema by its creator, Zvi Sahar, took the stage, or rather the stage and screen, on Easter Weekend: a work entitled Planet Egg. This is puppetry in the mode of video-projected microsurgery. Its workings will take some explaining (so all those suffering from ADD please take an extra pill before reading further). 

In the center of the stage is a medium-sized video projection screen. To the left is the puppeteers' work area ("the set"), consisting of a yard-wide revolving fixed form upon which the puppeteers have modeled the surface of a miniature planet with a moon-like landscape of plains and hills and very small, down-to-tiny objects. Lights and an auto-remote video camera are trained on this miniature set. What the camera captures is fed to the video screen. Zvi Sahar and fellow puppeteer Justin Perkins manipulate miniscule puppet characters and other objects. To the right of the screen is the work area of Ien DeNio, who is the sound designer and Foley artist. (Foley is the term for the production of sound from everyday objects, for sound effects uses in films and old-time radio.) Cinematographer and video engineer Jesse Garrison is there as well.

If during the show your attention wanders over to the puppeteers, they are noticeably moving tightly close to the rotating set with the kind of urgency one might associated with doctors performing microsurgery. Ms. DeNio creates the sounds with unrushed ease, and Mr. Garrison is quietly focused on modulating the video display. During the performance, the audience is aware of the activity on either side of the screen, but such activity is not particularly distracting, mainly due to a captivating story that unfolds on screen. Indeed, this side action enhances the overall richness of the experience.

Planet Egg's plot begins with all the flourish of the opening of 2001: a mock-heroic beginning which sets the whimsical atmosphere of the entire scenario. We see planets in the shape of eggs glide by (on strings, fully visible), a Jupiter or two, and twinkling stars. Then a primitive flying saucer is seen, something a child might put together out of odds and ends. It crash lands on the planet, and so begins the saga of the tiny robot passenger attempting to fix the saucer and escape. In the process, the Robot becomes familiar with the landscape of Planet Egg and its inhabitants: one onion-headed creature and the other indigenous life- form, animate mushrooms. On the barren landscape the Robot encounters vegetation, mechanical detritus, and a single AA battery with which it tries to start the saucer. The puppeteers infuse their tiny characters with such human attributes that one becomes grippingly engaged. The Robot's frustration, during its failed attempts to start up the saucer, is conveyed with remarkable lucidity.

The Robot consists of a one-inch head (probably from the innards of an old radio) with wire tentacles as legs/arms (which are manipulated by the puppeteers with sticks). How the puppeteers infuse this and the other tiny characters with human emotions is absolutely uncanny. The Onion, again, only about an actual inch with string-like roots as legs/arms, is horrified when first encountering the Robot intruder, but they eventually become friends, and even have a sort of romance. The puppeteers skillfully develop this unlikely relationship, just as it would progress in a stage play.

One of the planet's inhabitants, a cute and curious Mushroom, inadvertently gets electrocuted in the broken-down saucer's innards and then eaten by the hungry Robot. This turns out to be a great crime on this planet, and sets off the other mushrooms for revenge against the Robot. The Onion is in the middle but sides with the Mushrooms. The Onion, missing its companion, relents, but unfortunately too late to resume the friendship. A sad tragedy ensues. Does it sound like I got involved in the story? I certainly did!

The sound work of Ms. DeNio contributed enormously to the telling of the story. The failed attempts to start the saucer were accompanied by the repeated sound of an auto motor that just will not turn over, to uncannily authentic effect.

One might ask the question: Why not just have a small group watch the puppeteers directly instead of magnified video? Answer: it would lose the authentic quaintness of the miniature world of low-tech objects projected "big." In this production, the observer seeing the workings of the puppeteers is an enhancement to enjoying the story. Similarly, how pleased would an audience be if they were invited on the sound stage of any Star Trek production to watch the miniatures manipulated and then follow the ensuing story on screen! But why not just produce the show "big" to start with? Well, Jim Henson, with millions at his disposal, did such things "big" with mixed results (as in The Dark Crystal). Gerry Anderson's television shows in the '60s, such as Thunderbirds are GO and Fireball XL5, successfully used marionettes and miniatures on the small screen, but it was not live TV, and today's audiences who have become accustomed to 3D computer animation would not be interested.

Zvi Sahar and his associates intend to expand the work of Puppet Cinema, and I am excited see the further worlds they will take us to.