Often Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
It’s always a challenge to make the old seem new, to repackage something timeworn so that people will see it differently. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Adventures of Charcoal Boy, the two productions of HERE Arts Center’s Dream Music Puppetry program currently running in repertory, and the (mostly) delights and (slight) disappointments one feels when watching them, are cases in point. Both feature fantastic musical accompaniment and ingenious puppet creations that are unlikely to remind you in any way of the countless lame kiddie shows that might come to mind when you hear the word “puppet,” but where Elyas Khan, Eric Novak and Sarah Provost’s Charcoal Boy has an engagingly, fittingly weird story, all of Lake Simons’ great puppets and John Dyer’s impressive musical narration aren’t quite enough to make their rendition of Alice’s Adventures really stand out and come alive, at least if you’re familiar with the story and have already seen it many times in other formats (film, cartoon, regular theater), as most people have. Both shows are full of “wow” moments because of the technical wizardry, but for a story that matches the puppet and set creations for inspiration, Charcoal Boy is the one that will draw you in.
As Basil Twist, the puppetry grand master who runs the HERE program, noted when introducing Alice’s first night of previews that the collaboration between musicians and puppeteers is what it’s all about, and both shows are great examples. For Alice, Dyer supplies an amazing range of sound effects with just his voice and a few instruments; Elyas Khan plays the same virtuoso role for Charcoal Boy. In both cases it can be tempting to stop watching what’s going on onstage, cool though it all is, to marvel at the way they’re bringing things to life. In Charcoal Boy, the puppeteers themselves provide a further level of interpretation, their faces and gestures fleshing out (literally) the puppet characters’ emotions. The Charcoal Boy story, if you’re wondering, is simple in essence but bizarre, and captivating, in execution – a twig severed from a tree by lightning wanders the world before becoming famous as a charcoal artist in a variety show run by a cat with a God complex; the show also features the gentle and lovely Flying Girl. In Alice, meanwhile, the curious girl is embodied both by Lake Simons herself and by a little puppet, and it runs through most every scene in the book, from rabbit hole to caterpillar to Red Queen, making it too easy to have a “yeah, yeah, been there, done that” reaction even with the masterful puppetry; I kept hoping for a fresh take on events that never came.
The shows aren’t playing for long, so you should try to see them while you can; obviously I liked Charcoal Boy better, but I may have had the wrong expectations of Alice, which anyway has plenty of cool stuff going on. The bottom line is that if you’re into puppets and have been happily following the art’s reinvigoration in the past few years, these shows will confirm your faith in that process, and if you haven’t thought about puppets since the Muppets, they’ll be an excellent demonstration of the genre’s rapidly expanding horizons.
HERE Arts Center // 145 6th Ave. // Alice through Apr. 22, Charcoal Boy through April 17; see website for showtimes // Tickets at Smarttix