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|A CurtainUp Review
The Lone Runner: The Mythical Life Journey of Nikola Tesla
In his introduction to the half dozen events he covered in last season's puppet festival (see link) David Lipfert defined puppet theater as follows: ". . .a mechanical (non- animate) representation of a living being (person or animal) manipulated by a puppeteer. Give or take a few skeletons, that is. Apart from hand puppets and marionettes, there are other variations that might be less familiar. With body puppets the performers can be inside a mechanical costume or attached to the puppet so that their entire body causes the puppet to move. In traditional shadow puppet theater, the audience sees only the shadows of the cutouts or hands a lit screen. High-tech permutations on the puppet theme are endless."
The infinite variety of this increasingly popular new-old art form is once again on display in a puppet bio-drama about Nikolas Tesla, a pioneer in electrical engineering whose name has been obscured by the likes of Edison, Westinghouse and Marconi. Tesla was indeed a lone runner driven by his own inner light. As envisioned, designed and directed by Jane Catherine Shaw The Lone Runner is as esoteric and individualistic as its subject. Besides a stunning array of puppet techniques, Ms. Shaw uses excerpts from Faust to lend a lyrical intensity to Tesla's obsessive search for immortality through his life's main work, the development of alternate current.
The puppetry is truly mind-boggling. It includes shadow, rod, doll, and others, ranging in height from one foot to many feet in scale. Inspired by the scientist's fascination with pigeons which led him to likening one he partcularly favored to a woman inspired, Shaw to characterize it as the embodiment of his muse. Thus she has applied personifications of this woman-bird, sometimes though the Faust narrator (Sarah Provost) on a pedestal at the side of the stage and at other times with a pigeon puppet, a flying scarf or a big-screen projection in which the screen itself becomes a pair of wings. There's also a birdcage motif in which puppets are manipulated on three-foot rods from outside the lattice of the cage.
Standouts from the many striking images are a giant Edison sculptural figure with a a metal tongue that electrocutes dog puppets and a miniature electric chair (with an electrocution botched because it did not use alternating current).
The puppeteers (7 in all) are almost always visible which is somewhat distracting even though their movements have been choreographed like a slow ballet. Tim Schellenbaum's original music underscores the eeriness of the show which lasts just one hour.
This is not a family puppet drama, and probably not mass market adult fare either. However, for those willing to hitch their imagination to Ms. Shaw's, it's an opportunity to learn about an unusual man of science and see puppetry once more leap beyond the bounds of the expected.
International Puppet Festival reviews
End of the World a review of Raymond Paska's puppet play at the Berkshire Theatre Festival