Let's start with this: No serious fan of Triangle theater can afford to miss the work being done by the Paperhand Puppet Intervention. Under the direction of Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger, the five-year-old troupe has regularly produced astonishing experimental theater using a wide variety of puppetry styles, accompanying its shows with original live music and wordless vocalizations that range from achingly beautiful to broadly comic. Paperhand's end-of-summer run at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Forest Theater has become an annual event attended by hundreds of local residents — most of them families with young children, if the September 4th performance of this year's Wood, Stone, Fire, Bone is a reliable indicator — and can be counted on to get rave reviews from the local press.
The group is also a valuable community presence offstage, bringing its puppets to events like Bynum's Haw River Festival, Durham's Festival for the Eno, and the Bugfests held at Raleigh's Museum of Natural Sciences. It also regularly performs at local benefits, like the one being held September 19th for Carrboro's ArtsCenter on the Weaver Street Market lawn, and averages about 10 school shows a year, according to Zimmerman, while finding time to bring puppets to large-scale political demonstrations like last fall's protest at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami.
Whew. Quite a unique resume for a Triangle theater group. This area is lucky to have them.
That said, it's time for a bit of realism — the kind that rarely appears in reviews of Paperhand Puppet Intervention shows. Simply put, theatergoers of a certain age and level of sophistication might, at times, find the group's work slow-moving, simplistic, and somewhat shallow, particularly when compared to more established puppetry groups like Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater.
Make no mistake: Wood, Stone, Fire, Bone offered plenty of amazing sights that wowed the audience, including an enormous giraffe on stilts, gorgeous high-flying birds, and a surprisingly detailed display of shadow puppetry. But halfway through the 75-minute show, it began to dawn on me and my two companions that the larger-than-life creatures weren't actually doing much, beyond running around the stage staring at each other. They certainly didn't come into any recognizable conflict that helped them develop as characters, although a few were born or died. In short, Wood, Stone, Fire, Bone could have used a few more of the elements that help make theater interesting.
Like a plot.
Aside from a few broad slapstick depictions of an on-again/off-again romance that provided much-needed comic relief, it's nearly impossible to say what Wood, Stone, Fire, Bone was about. In a phone call a few days after the show, Zimmerman described the play as "a pageant with more universal statements that people can interpret in many ways," and said he was using archetypal images to demonstrate "the big phases of life," like childhood, adolescence, attraction, tenderness, and death. Unfortunately — and unlike most archetypal stories — the individual images in Wood, Stone don't add up to anything larger.
For example, the show opens with Fire being born, then encountering a giraffe and her child. Nothing happens in the encounter, which bears no relationship to future developments. Stone appears and, for a few minutes, has trouble with a mischievous moving rock. A red bird dances to Oriental music, then leaves before a wild boar circles the stage. Later, Fire grows up, which is shown by sending it into the wings and bringing it back in a bigger mask. Nothing in the story precipitates the change.
At this point, my companion Liz turned to me and said, "I keep waiting for Fire to fall from grace, to hurt something because of who it is." She waited in vain. Instead, a huge Sun came out as flowery marionettes danced up the aisles. Water covered a few people in a strip of blue gauze. The two romantic types went on a slapstick picnic. Next came a shadow puppet show about wind, a tree, a crab, and the ocean. Then Air died and was reborn as a bird. The end.
Fire's character was nowhere to be found.
To call this narrative minimal would be an overstatement; negligible is perhaps the better word. The show functions more like a demo reel of the group's considerable skills than a coherent story that sustains interest for an hour and 15 minutes.
Sure, it was very pretty, and fun to absorb for a while. The dreamy, trancelike music helped, as did the fascinating way Zimmerman and guitarist Jimmy Magoo vocalized over the action in a few scenes, bringing to mind those wonderfully surreal Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the 1930s as the two musicians acted through their onstage associates. But even granting the performance's many pleasures, the story amounts to nothing more than a series of vaguely choreographed vignettes in which heavily masked characters barely relate to one another.
That can only be seen as a disappointment, given Paperhand's stunning creativity and imagination on other fronts.
The group seems to have anticipated this objection in its program for the play. "Don't think too much," it reads. "It's really just good clean fun with goop and scraps of cloth." It's certainly difficult to argue with that. But thoughtful theatergoers who delight in the power of puppetry can be forgiven for hoping that Paperhand will eventually reign in its tendency towards tangentially-linked episodes and occasionally produce a more tightly constructed narrative. The group's wonderful summer 2000 show at Forest Theater, A Very Old Unfinished Story, came closer to that than this year's offering.
Still, there's no doubt the Paperhand Puppet Intervention is a local treasure. Zimmerman, who owns land in Saxapahaw, says he has no plans to leave the area.
"I'd like to be doing more serious work in larger auditoriums," he told me. "I don't think it'd be too far off to perform at Page Auditorium or the BTI Center, or any number of places that can seat larger audiences."
Zimmerman added that he'd like to create "some more adult shows" and said he'd eventually like to see the group tour the East Coast every year. It would also be nice, he said, to perform in venues that provide more control over lights and sound — a thought that would surely be echoed by audiences who watched darkness fall over Forest Theater before Wood, Stone, Fire, and Bone had run its course, or whose show was rained out.
Finally, I asked Zimmerman if he'd thought about working with the American Dance Festival. It seems way past time for the ADF to offer Paperhand some kind of residency, or give them a chance to collaborate with an experienced choreographer.
Zimmerman's response: "That sounds interesting."
Theater fans across the Triangle are crossing their fingers for that one.
Second Opinion: Aug. 25th Chapel Hill, NC Front Row Center review by Alan R. Hall: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html; Aug. 25th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/2004-08-25/woods.html; and Aug. 19th Robert's Reviews mini-preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0804.html#WSWBmini. For more information on Paperhand Puppet Intervention, visit http://www.paperhand.org/.
*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/. Weekend monsoons delayed his trip to review Wood, Stone, Fire, Bone.