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American puppets must seem so boring to the rest of the world. For a large part, the American tradition of puppetry is exemplified by the ventriloquist routine: a simple dummy paired with a comedian who does funny voices. And of course there are Jim Henson’s creations, but even those don’t have the flexibility and diversity of design seen the world over. European theatre has a much more diverse range of puppets in action, probably due to the rich history and higher legitimacy of its street performers. It’s fitting that our featured artists, Hugo Suarez and Ines Pasic, got their starts there. They met and began working on the streets of Italy, Hugo from Peru and Ines from Bosnia. They literally didn’t speak the same language when they met, relying instead on body language. They found small success as mimes, but truly found their calling when they combined their mime training with puppetry. The duo, Teatro Hugo e Ines, has been performing their unique form of puppetry for more than 20 years, from Japan to Iran. The much-anticipated return of their signature work Short Stories to NCSU Center Stage was met with a diverse audience of students, adults, and children, and everyone seemed to find something to latch onto.
Short Stories is a series of vignettes that carefully brings to life a hodgepodge of characters. Hugo and Ines’s work has been described as “body puppets” for a lack of a better descriptor. It’s certainly not traditional puppetry as we think of it, and is more akin to mime. They sculpt their characters from appendages (elbows, hands, knees, their stomach at one moment) and small props. A false pair of eyes here and a rubber nose there and suddenly we have a full-fledged character. Sometimes an article of clothing like a shirt helps the illusion, but this simple yet mesmerizing work mostly relies on the audience’s willing imagination and our brain’s odd habit of looking for the human face in inanimate objects. Viewing characters that were something between a hand puppet and an optical illusion, the audience members had as many gasps and oohs and aahs as they did laughs, wracking their brains trying to figure out just how the puppeteers did that.
Beyond the precision of their mime work, Hugo and Ines truly succeed in creating character. Their success in this area is perhaps best illustrated by how different their puppets brought to life are from one another. Hugo’s characters tend to be different variations of the playful tramp. They move with an obnoxious, whimsical energy. His puppets are all id, and take over against his will as if possessed. In one clever moment, a hand puppet eggs on the audience for applause, only to stop it abruptly. The puppet then goes on to play a game with the audience, stopping and starting our applause over and over until it’s exhausted its fun. It’s an interesting level of audience participation that only seems to work because of Hugo’s innate ability to bring the child out of the adult. Ines’s work leans toward the somber. Her characters are more anxious and uncertain, often being variations of the sad clown. In one particularly moving piece, Paul McCartney’s classic “Yesterday” plays as a heartsick hand puppet sighs and moans the thought of a lost love.
Judging by how many stayed for the talkback, it’s apparent that American audiences truly crave live entertainment that relies heavily on minimalism, precision, craft, and artistry. I don’t know how well that craving is being nurtured, but we can at least rely on traveling artists like Hugo and Ines to occasionally feed our appetite.