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Puppets Take Manhattan

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Last weekend, I found myself attending not one but two theatrical events, both pitched at adults, that revolved around puppets and rock music. One was Puppet Playlist at the Tank in midtown, an evening of puppet shows inspired by one-hit wonders. The other was Band of Puppets at the Bushwick Starr, a tribute to David Bowie in the form of live puppet music videos.

Beyond my weekend o' puppets, there was also my recent visit to Stuffed and Unstrung, an R-rated puppet improv show at the Union Square Theatre. Currently running at avant-garde venue HERE are the latest new works to come out of their Dream Music Puppetry Program. Then there is everyone's favorite racy puppet musical, Avenue Q, which has been running off-and-on-Broadway since 2003. The list goes on and on.

So what's the deal with all the puppets?

Puppets, like cartoons, used to be for kids but are no longer (think The Simpsons, Family Guy, Southpark). These days, puppets are more often conduits for either high-brow visual lyricism (the underwater puppets of Basil Twist; the haunting, evocative work showcased at places like LaMaMa and St. Ann's Warehouse) or irreverent humor that plays on the supposed innocence of the little creatures (Stuffed and Unstrung, Avenue Q).

Clearly, we -- in New York, if not in the world at large -- are having a puppet moment.

It is certainly a trend, but it is also a sign of theater artists seeking new approaches to their craft and pushing the boundaries of storytelling on the stage. With puppets, entire alternate universes can be born and peopled by all sorts of creepy and beautiful living beings. At the same time, puppets -- like cartoons -- have a certain license to shock that humans beings don't have, and therefore make good mouthpieces for social critique (evidenced by the work of venerable Vermont troupe Bread and Puppet, among many others).

Perhaps puppetry also appeals to us on some subconscious level because it affords the puppeteer (and, vicariously, the audience) a modicum of control which we don't feel in our daily lives. In a world where we often feel like puppets of major corporations or misguided governments, perhaps it is refreshing to be the giant pulling the strings for once.

In any case, it's a good time to be a puppeteer. I have a friend who makes her living with a combination of puppeteering her own shows, other people's shows, handling muppets on film shoots before they go on camera (a position with the sumptuous name "Muppet Wrangler"), and building puppets for a commercial puppet workshop. Yes, this pays the rent. Not a waitressing job in sight.

Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets and the granddaddy of modern puppetry, didn't live long enough to see this wave of puppet mania. (He died in 1990.) But I like to think of Henson in puppet heaven (which probably looks a bit like David Bowie's castle at the end of Henson's 1986 feature, Labyrinth) looking down in glee as puppetry, this ancient art form that is continually being reinvented, gets hip.