I first became entranced by the weirdness of puppets — and puppeteers — through internationally acclaimed stop-motion animators The Brothers Quay (“Street of Crocodiles,” “In Absentia,” and “This Dream People Call Huma Life”).
Of the craft of puppetry, they observe: “That’s a huge legacy that goes back to the 14th century. Our own work probably descends from the turn of the century, with Richard Teschner and Władysław Starewicz. The tradition of European puppets — aside from classical puppetry — was always very symbolic and very serious. It wasn’t for kids. They took on serious metaphysical themes. Growing up in America, we always felt like everything was Rin-Tin-Tin Land. It just felt like everything was gravitating towards kids and they wouldn’t take the metis — the craft — seriously.”
Joe Cashore, the puppet-maker, puppeteer, creator and director of Cashore Marionettes, doesn’t reference European masters like Richard Teschner and Władysław Starewicz in his interviews or act. But the metis, and the mystery are very much in evidence.
Cashore has received a Pew Charitable Trust fellowship, a Jim Henson Foundation Grant and a Citation of Excellence from the Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA), apparently the highest possible honor for a U.S.-based puppeteer.
He and his wife Wilma, who gave up medical school in favor of assisting her husband, have played big arenas: the Kennedy Center, Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
But they’re just as likely to be found in places like Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University, the Delaware County Christian School and Caltech’s Ramo Auditorium, where I caught them last month for a Saturday night show entitled “Simple Gifts.”
I’d expected the place to be swarming with kids, but the audience was overwhelmingly adult; in fact, older adult.
Joe is a big middle-aged guy in glasses and a button-down shirt who announces each piece with few words and next to no affect. Wilma, similarly attired in a nondescript turtleneck and slacks, unobtrusively emerges before each vignette to silently place various props onstage: a Lilliputian music stand, a tiny rug, a minuscule cradle.
I soon realized this was designed to cede center stage to the marionettes and, in Joe’s case, because what looks like the unimaginably complex business of marionetteering would require near-monastic focus.
At any given time, Joe might have four or five controls, each with multiple strings, in his hands. Many sketches had multiple characters. The “WikiHow to Work a Marionette” entry counsels, “Stand above the marionette in a comfortable position. Do not stand precariously as the excitement of moving the puppet can unbalance you.” That’s a heck of a lot of excitement. How on God’s green earth do you get a marionette to shove a handkerchief into his pants pocket, I kept thinking, or throw a piece of rubbish into a trashcan, or fly a kite?
The pieces have the burnish of a bygone era. “Maestro Janos Zelinka,” played to R. Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” features an Old World violinist. In “A Lullaby” a mother lovingly rocks her fretful baby to the strains of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major. In “African Mourning,” performed to Kevin Volans’ “White Man Sleeps,” an elephant (which we later learned weighed 10 pounds and required the wearing of a harness to shift the weight from Joe’s shoulders to his hip) grieves over a fallen comrade.
The show has been called “magic without words” and the magic is in the extraordinary expressiveness Joe manages to coax from what to you or me would be inert lumps of leather, foam and string. To me, the most moving piece was “Humanity,” in which a soldier lays down his rifle and picks up a newborn — the baby of the wife of the man he has just killed.
In the post-show Q-and-A, we learned that Joe himself designs and constructs the marionettes, and also some of his secrets: the spring-loaded joints, the concealed magnets, the neoprene-coated Styrofoam. We learned that the marionette with the most strings was the elephant, at 42, and the least was the trapeze guy, at 17. We learned that Joe saw his first marionette in a toy store on the Jersey shore at the age of 11. A shy boy, he worked up the courage to ask the saleswoman if he could work the strings. She said no.
What we didn’t learn was what drives a person to a lifelong obsession with an art that, though as intricate as brain surgery, is neither wildly popular nor widely appreciated.
Does Joe sometimes forget where the marionettes end and he begins?
What compels him and Wilma to keep playing to audiences around the country, night after night packing and unpacking their little violinists and homeless people and elephants and heartbroken soldiers?
The Brothers Quay come as close to an answer as we may get:
“It’s that little glint, that privileged look into a keyhole, and realizing suddenly that there’s this little universe that’s probably suffering and barely breathing, but it’s pulsating, vibrating, with its own life. That in itself is a metaphor of the universe.”