by SOPHIE KERMAN
Blair Thomas may have just changed the way I think about puppet shows. While In the Heart of the Beast has made itself known for its kid-friendly, large-scale puppet theater, Thomas’s Hard Headed Heart is not for children and only partly about puppets. This trio of short pieces, each an adaptation of a different poetic or musical idea, draws on various styles of puppetry, scrolling painted backdrops, and live music to create an experience that is better thought of as a “puppet concert” than a “puppet show.”
In choosing to stage a raunchy script by Federico García Lorca, a New Orleans folk song, and a poem by Wallace Stevens, Blair Thomas is biting off some pretty meaty source material. But what is so interesting about his adaptations is just how well his unique integration of puppets works with each of the three textual inspirations.
The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal opens the evening on a comic note. Relating the story of Don Cristobal and how he wins the hand of the all-too-willing Dona Rosita, García Lorca’s script is probably the one that most easily caters to a Punch-and-Judy style of puppetry. But Thomas’s skilled work with both a drum kit and the puppets’ own wooden hands manages to punctuate Don Cristobal with a rhythmic element that transforms the piece from puppetry to music.
While Don Cristobal incorporates musical elements, St. James Infirmary takes music as its point of departure. Based on the New Orleans folk song of the same name, this piece uses marionettes to tell the story of a man dealing with the death of his lover. Thomas’s juggling of tasks in this piece is particularly impressive, as he quickly transitions between the puppet stage and the pit band below, where he creates a live soundtrack using several different instruments which he records on loops. Perhaps the most technically challenging of the three pieces, St. James is also the one that is most concert-like in pace: as an audience, we watch the story unfold through the rise and fall of the music and the movement of the scrolling paper backdrop. This isn’t to say that the piece is boring – far from it – but it does require you to adjust your expectations of what you think puppetry should look like.
The Blackbird, based on the Wallace Stevens poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” was in my mind the most successful melding of the source text, music and puppets. Thomas stages the poem through shadow puppetry on four scrolling panels, each lit from behind by lamplight. As the story literally unfurls, the simple language of the poem combines with Thomas’s artistic style to create a powerful sense of mood.
The three pieces that make up Hard Headed Heart defied all of my expectations of puppet theater: they are not cheerful, they are (for the most part) not fast-paced or goofy, and they are not even remotely aimed at kids. (In the Heart of the Beast only recommends the show for ages 14 and up; I would only bring a 14-year-old if they were particularly intellectual or artistic.) But what Thomas does, in showing us this new side to puppetry, is allow us to understand poetry, music, and art in a different way. By allowing sound and action to play off one another, Thomas has picked up on the hidden rhythms of each of the three pieces – the three movements, if you can call them that, of a very unusual symphony.
Hard Headed Heart by Blair Thomas at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 East Lake St., Minneapolis, 55407. February 11-12, 2012. Tickets $10 or pay what you can at www.hobt.org.