Torry Bend is a brilliant designer and object theatre artist, currently an assistant professor in Duke’s Dept. of Theatre Studies. She makes — if not entire worlds — cities in which her marionettes act stories full of pathos and hope. Her complex model rooms and buildings and streets come “alive” as they are videoed, and video also allows Bend to play with scale in a completely delicious and novel way. Her previous work shown in Durham, The Paper Hat Game, caught the attention of Duke Performances’ director, Aaron Greenwald, who engineered a collaboration between Bend and the Durham band Bombadil. Their dazzling new show Love’s Infrastructure premiered Jan. 24 in the PSI Theatre of the Durham Arts Council in another of Duke Performances’ successful efforts to unite Duke and Durham through the arts.
In his introduction to the performance, Greenwald said he’s taken to calling it an “indie pop puppet opera,” which pretty much nails it. That a puppet show could be operatic in scope may strike you as unlikely, but only if you have not previously experienced Bend’s work. Its conceptual grandeur and the marshalling of all its tiny components through artistry and engineering into something large had already made Bend’s art symphonic in my mind, and the addition of live musicians in the stage space of Love’s Infrastructure lifted it into the realm of the operatic. The puppets don’t sing, but Stuart Robinson, Daniel Michalak, and Sumner James Phillips do — singly, doubly, and triply. I was very nearly sent into overload by the presence of the three-man band, crisply dressed in slim white suits, with their gleaming black instruments, beside a large video screen on which a real-time film was made before our eyes by puppeteers and technicians.
The puppeteers, all in black, flit purposefully around the stage and even at times in among the band, with their live-feed video cameras, while others manipulate the puppets and the wonderful elaborate sets with their buildings, streets and tollbooths, cars and trains. You can see the tables full of set pieces, but you see something else about them on screen. Scale continually shifts; images layer and separate (as many as four simultaneous layers are possible). Sometimes images of the band members appear in car windows on screen. There are levels beyond levels here.
The flow of images is fascinating, as is the flow of music. At times the two rivers run together; sometimes they diverge but run parallel. And when you turn your eyes from the video (some so soft focus and blown-out that it wears on the eyes) to the actual live band standing there so firmly three-dimensional and present, it is almost more than the brain can process. One becomes engrossed in the reality of the filmic puppet world — yet here is our world’s reality, only it seems hyper-real and artful, like a photorealistic painting or a Duane Hanson sculpture. Each time I looked from the screen to the band, I experienced a burst of endorphins — pure aesthetic pleasure.
I have to admit that I did not really follow the story, being so absorbed in the visual-aural experience. Something about a woman in a tollbooth, a man in a car. A love arc. The emotions came through loud and clear, though, in the action and in the plangent music and lovely songs. Puppet opera, with live music: mesmerizing, magical, moving — and madly brilliant.
Love’s Infrastructure continues through Sunday, January 26, but regrettably for those without tickets already, all remaining shows are sold out.