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Are there any Triangle theater-goers who still need to be convinced of the intellectual potential of puppets on a stage? If so, let's hope they saw the Nov. 18 and 19 performances of Measuring Man by Philadelphia's Mum Puppettheatre, presented by Duke Performances in Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University. It would surely have put any doubts to rest.
The award-winning company used a combination of modern movement, spoken word, visual projection, singing, and — of course — experimental puppetry to offer a clever, tantalizing look at the life and career of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Measuring Man was written and performed by Robert Smythe, Mum's founder and artistic director, and Daniel Stein, widely acknowledged as a leading practitioner of what is perhaps unfortunately called "new wave mime."
In a marvelous little touch that nicely demonstrated the two men's willingness to breach the audience-performer barrier, they were already on stage watching as the audience filed in. There was no curtain, and no waiting in the wings.
The relatively spare two-man show, a departure from the group's normally wordless approach to theater, included astonishing examples of Mum's witty approach to "object manipulation." Imagine Stein dancing gracefully with a Home Depot-style retractable metal tape measure, shaping its 20-foot length into various points and angles and sweeping them across the stage. Or Smythe wrapping broken wood and crumpled newspaper in masking tape to create new characters right in front of the audience's eyes.
Smythe then used those characters to bring to life evocative moments from Leonardo da Vinci's life, including an achingly powerful scene about the artist/scientist's fascination with an old man's peaceful death, and his frustration at not being able to autopsy the cause of such a gentle expiration. In the process, Smythe rapidly destroyed the puppet he'd created just moments before.
When was the last time you saw something like that on a Triangle stage? Measuring Man promised to "explore the struggle to create, regardless of the consequences," and for the most part delivered on that promise. We heard fascinating quotes from da Vinci's journals and provocative tidbits about his many uncompleted projects, including some he'd worked on for decades. I was particularly surprised by the quiet secrecy with which da Vinci had conducted his experiments in flight.
Smythe and Stein were also marvelously inventive themselves, whether working together under a dark sheet to create the fluid shape of an oversized narrator (used too sparingly, alas), wielding flashlights behind a scrim to create four characters in hilariously dada conversation, or wearing Xeroxed Mona Lisa masks while belting out Nat King Cole's famous song about the painting. The rest of the show contained a similarly stunning parade of images.
That said, I have to admit to being a bit disappointed in the depth of the play's content. While a climactic scene did nicely capture the traumatic results of a creative process gone wrong, overall there was something that felt a bit slight about this performance. Perhaps, it was the quick 75-minute run time or, perhaps, the inclusion of a few too many pratfall jokes for the kids in the audience (Rule #1 of puppettheater-going: all but the most dreadfully serious performances will include plenty of jokes for the kids).
As I left Reynolds, I realized I'd expected a more probing look at both da Vinci and creativity. Instead, I'd gotten a few tantalizing morsels of information and a clever presentation of some basic thoughts about art and invention. Not a bad evening at the theater, to be sure. But a quick glance at Mum's other offerings leaves me wondering if the decision to include so many words — including an overly long and not very funny scene in which Stein repeatedly interrupted Smythe as he was trying to tell a story — may have interfered with the emotional intensity of Measuring Man.
Stein's repeated improvised asides about people who "voted red" didn't help, either. Was he chastising the audience for living in a state whose electoral votes went for Bush, or was he sharing a laugh with the audience at the dumb folks around us? Even he didn't seem to know. Either way, the political jokes fell surprisingly flat.
Stein more than made up for them, however, with the amazing control he has over his body, including his facial features. Throughout the piece, he was a joy to watch, if not always to listen to. Smythe's control over his off-the-cuff puppet creations was equally astounding. We can only hope Mum Puppettheatre is invited back to the Triangle soon. If they bring a show that's more in line with the ones that made their reputation, so much the better.
Duke Performances: http://www.duke.edu/web/dukeperfs/. Mum Puppettheatre: http://www.mumpuppet.org/. Measuring Man: http://www.mumpuppet.org/touring/measuringman.html.
Editor's Note: Todd Morman is a Raleigh, NC freelance writer, reviewer, blogger, and host of the "Monkeytime" community-access cable television show. For more of his no-holds-barred commentaries on current events and the arts, see the Monkey Media Report: http://www.monkeytime.org/.