Puppetry appears to be going through a renaissance this fall. Over five puppet plays are being showcased in September and October alone at 59E59, La Mama, Dixon Place, HERE, and elsewhere. In fall of 2016, the Museum of the Moving Image is premiering The Jim Henson Exhibition and Gallery, which will feature a selection from the Museum’s collection of nearly 500 objects related to Jim Henson’s distinguished career including historic puppets, costumes, and production design material. In addition, Basil Twist, puppeteer extrodinaire, recently was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation and awarded a “Genius Grant.” The MacArthur press release noted that Basil Twist’s fellowship “sheds light on and helps revitalize puppetry as a serious and sophisticated art form.”
Collapsing Horse makes its presence known, even before taking on their puppet personas. Several minutes before the play opens, the Collapsing Horse’s ensemble of four actor/puppeteers huddle together, posing stoically against a dark backdrop — a dark, den-like place with a plethora of old tapes, files, and found memorabilia on shelves that fade back into the recesses of the stage (set design by Aaron Heffernan). The cast members (energetic and universally excellent performances by Jack Gleeson, Aaron Heffernan, Cameron Macaulay, and Eoghan Quinn), who grew up in and around Dublin, having met in the drama society at Trinity College, Dublin, “feel” like they are “finish each others’ sentences” comrades — an acting ensemble with a distinct vision.
Then, as the lights come up, the actors disperse; the narrator (Macaulay) takes front and center stage. He addresses the audience with his hand puppet, in language mixed with Shakespearean nuances and by-gone euphemisms, such as “holy moly.” The narrator, posturing as a Brothers Grimm raconteur, recounts the adventures and misadventures of two intrepid astronaut/cosmonaut bears piloting their spacecraft, the SS Quickfast toward distant galaxies, while being pursued by the evil tyrant, Nico and his cohorts. The narrator/archivist is the Story Keeper. He is a punctilious and overbearing librarian, acted with authoritarian relish by the talented Macaulay — who also composes and plays various musical pieces throughout the play. The Story Keeper asks one of his sons, Lady Susan, to get him his favorite story, Bears In Space, from his library files, and the story unfolds.
Two bear officers (Bolyova and Bhourghashi) — specifically, a polar bear and a koala — wake up 700 years later in their space ship, the SS Quickfast, in an unknown time, orbiting a planet called Metrotopia. Their Captain, Lazara, is left in suspended animation until an antidote can be found for her dire illness. The ursine officers are left to their own devices to figure out how to battle a dastardly villain and find a cure for their captain. Bolyova and Bhourghashi are portrayed gleefully and, at times, with improvisational zest, by Heffernan (puppetry as well as set design) and Quinn (puppeteer as well as playwright). The villain, Nico, who pursues the often clueless bears is performed by Gleeson, who has fine-tuned villain roles into his own art form. However, each actor plays multiple roles, jumping easily from the Story Keeper’s sons to the spaceship crew to whatever interstellar characters are required.
Eoghan Quinn writes a collage-script — a beautifully crafted, many layered play but with a strong narrative arc. Yet, Quinn allows room within his story for improvisation and fantastic leaps of imagination, while maintaining a cohesive and credible storyline.
Dan Colley directs Bears In Space with flexible and deft comedic timing appropriate to farce and improv.
Aaron Heffernan’s imaginative set is reminiscent of outsider artists represented in the current exhibit at the New Museum (synergistically named), The Keeper — “which brings together a variety of imaginary museums, personal collections, and unusual assemblages, revealing the devotion with which artists, collectors, scholars, and hoarders have created sanctuaries for endangered images and artifacts.” The Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) and the Arthur Bispo do Rosário exhibits are particularly relevant to Heffernan’s imaginative, found-object set designs.
The same may be said about Heffernan’s puppet designs. On first glance the puppets may seem thrown together — makeshift and haphazard. However, his concept drawings show that a great deal of thought went into and was brought to bear (no pun intended) in the evolution of his puppets. His “a little of this and little of that” piecemeal approach works. His puppets are a beautiful complement to his set designs and the playwright’s collage story structure.
Abigail Hoke-Brady makes wonderful lighting design choices that allow for seamless transitions between the space-time continuum and the present.
Bears in Space is fringe-zany puppetry at its most infectious — a comedy gone viral, captivating a cult audience who appreciates mad leaps in imagination.
Bears In Space (through October 2, 2016)
Collapsing Horse Theatre
Origin’s 1st Irish Festival 2016
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission