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Ernie’s Secret Life

An intriguing production blending puppetry and stagecraft in telling a story about one man's journey to an understanding of his personal relationship with his son who is no longer present in his life.

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Carlo Adinolfi in a scene from Concrete Temple Theatre’s production of Renee Philippi’s “Ernie’s Secret Life” at Dixon Place (Photo credit: Stefan Hagen)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

Ernie’s Secret Life, written and directed by Renee Philippi and featuring puppetry and set design by Carlo Adinolfi, is an intriguing production blending puppetry and stagecraft in telling a story about one man’s journey to an understanding of his personal reality. It is a story that weaves in and out of the changing mental states of a father struggling to understand his relationship with his son, a son who is no longer present in his life.

The show is well presented but lacks a clear narrative, leaving viewers with more questions than answers. Is it about a man’s journey to self-discovery or an exploration into a confusing haze of fantasy and hallucination brought on by a mental breakdown? The added storylines used to illustrate narrative points do not clarify the overall thematic structure of the production but add layers to the mystery of Ernie’s mental state. If you like theater, even with the limitations in exposition, it is worth the effort to experience a production outside of what people typically consider dramatic staging.

The play starts with Ernie peering out from blinds in a window set placed in the center of the stage. He is skillfully played by Adinolfi as both actor and puppeteer. He opens the blinds and tells of his quest to find his son, who has traveled to Nova Scotia to study and who Ernie believes is in trouble and needs his father’s help. The play’s structure is built around several tales told in parallel with, and as analogies to, details from Ernie’s relationship with his son.

Carlo Adinolfi, J Hann and Kasper Klopp in a scene from Concrete Temple Theatre’s production of Renee Philippi’s “Ernie’s Secret Life” at Dixon Place (Photo credit: Stefan Hagen)

The first of these stories is about when Antarctic explorer Shackleton saved his crew after their ship was sunk. Ernie shows the audience with puppets how Shackleton went about the rescue while telling the story of how he plans to help his son. The puppet of Shackleton appears repeatedly during the show, and his first name is never spoken. It is a detail that is not revealed but should be since Shackleton’s first name was Ernest, which makes the connection to Ernie’s fantasy world unmistakable.

Other scenes illustrate the delusional world that Ernie is flowing in and out of in his effort to travel to Nova Scotia by canoe to help his son. In one scene, although he has an extreme fear of drowning, he is preparing to put his canoe in water when he apparently falls in and starts to drown. The scene shifts from him struggling to swim to fish puppets appearing, and Ernie transforming into a fish. When the scene ends, it is apparent that it was all a fear-induced hallucination.

This scene introduces the skillful puppeteers who carry out all the roles in the segment and in other puppetry scenes. The choreography and puppetry executed are first-rate. The puppeteers are Tau Bennett, Amanda Glynn Card, Camille Leigh Cooper, J Hann, Kasper Klop, and Kezia Tyson. In earlier scenes, they seemed to be stagehands making changes to the set, but this moment establishes them as an essential part of the action in roles much more significant than simply adjusting the sets.

Tau Bennett and Carlo Adinolfi in a scene from Concrete Temple Theatre’s production of Renee Philippi’s “Ernie’s Secret Life” at Dixon Place (Photo credit: Stefan Hagen)

Another pivotal scene takes place on a bus en route to Boston. Ernie uses an old tale of a fire and a bear who love each other and what happens to the relationship when Bear becomes distracted from Fire. It is presented as an analogy of Ernie’s relationship with his son. The problem is that the connection between Ernie’s experience and the Fire/Bear story is unclear, so the cause of his obsession with saving his son is suggested but remains a mystery.

Ultimately, the viewer is left with too many unanswered questions about Ernie’s mental state at the beginning and end of his journey. His relationship with his son is the catalyst for the trip, but how much of the trip is real, and how much is a journey in a dream world inside Ernie’s head?

The puppets and sets figure prominently in this production, and although the sets are basically boxes and poles, the way they are used works in support of the puppetry. Carlo Adinolfi is the principal puppet and set designer. Laura Anderson Barbata’s costuming is mostly limited to the character of Ernie, with the puppeteers wearing neutral-colored body suits. The design and changes work effectively with the stories being told. The music was composed by Joe Phillips, and Eric Nightengale provided the sound and lighting design.

Ernie’s Secret Life (through January 27, 2024)

Concrete Temple Theatre

Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.dixonplace.org

Running time: 65 minutes without an intermission

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About Scotty Bennett (80 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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