Two years ago, when renowned American puppeteer Basil Twist was in Charleston to present his huge marionette opera La Bella Dormente nel Bosco at the Dock Street Theatre for Spoleto, he observed that something weird occurs with puppetry and audiences.
"There's an event happening with puppets on a stage that's different and separate from the story itself, from what's taking place on the stage," Twist said. "When you do something with a puppet — when you make something that is not alive, but looks like it's alive, or like it comes to life — that's a complete event in itself. Even aside from the story and stuff. It stands alone from the story. There's an excitement in the visual act of seeing something come alive."
Local artist Geoff Cormier knows of what Twist speaks. "Seeing a puppet perform, you lose your consciousness of it as an object and you realize you're fully consumed in watching this thing as much as if you were watching a live actor perform. It's an elemental thing. There's something natural about it."
The theatrical lighting designer, musician, and puppeteer has been creating his own idiosyncratic performances here for years, most recently in the company of rouge-and-mascara-slathered performance art sensation Cabaret Kiki. But the puppets inhabiting Cormier's shows aren't, like Twist's or The Muppets, meant to appear on stage. As a matter of fact, they aren't meant to be seen at all.
"With shadow puppetry, the puppets themselves aren't so precious," Cormier says. "Mine are just bits of cardboard marked up with Sharpie and pencil, not much to look at. Because it's not about the figures but about the shadows they create."
This Saturday is recognized by artists like Cormier as the National Day of Puppetry. To mark it, on Friday night, in the backyard of Read Bros. Stereo on King Street, Cormier will present two performances of his newest short work, Mr. Evening, which he describes as "a Southern Gothic object lesson shadow puppet open-air play." (See City Picks, page 26.) Also appearing is local author Charlie Geer, who'll read a brief, fresh variation on his 2005 novel Outbound: The Curious Secession of Latter-Day Charleston with music and shadow puppet accompaniment from Cormier. Shadow belly dancing and music from The Bird Hermit round out the program.
Based on a short story by cultish New York author James Purdy, Mr. Evening is bigger than Cormier's typically small-scale works: it's performed behind a 13-by-16-foot shadow screen using full- and half-sized figures.
"It's interesting material for a dramatic shadow piece," Cormier says. "A friend of mine wanted to bring his kids. But this isn't kids' stuff, it's more like adult theatre, and it breaks down the popular misconception that any puppet show is a kids' show. It's a centuries-old art form that was not really created for Saturday mornings."
At the same time, Cormier says, it's not meant to be taken too seriously. "It's all in good fun. I'm not putting on a heavy drama with hopes of putting something above and beyond what it is, which is just good entertainment. It's all very silly and very fun, very laughable. On top of that, I just like having parties."
Still, creating the show has been anything but child's play.
"To a lot of people it seems like shadow puppets are nothing but two-dimensional cardboard cutouts — a bunch of lights, cardboard, and some sticks. But it's amazing how the most simple thing can be so complicated."
An immutable fact of the form is that the hoped-for result is without color, facial features, clothing, or any similar identifiers. A talented puppeteer allows an audience to fill in those parts of the performance themselves.
The mechanics of creation, Cormier says, are much like working with a movie camera. "You have to negotiate lighting angles and movement. You have to show three-dimensional movement in a two-dimensional plane. So you have to look at it like a camera. You don't look at the puppet, you're looking at the shadow it creates. It doesn't matter what happens behind the screen, as long as the resulting shadow looks right."
Mr. Evening, he says, is a cautionary tale in which desire and acquisition can be a dangerous thing. "Be careful what you wish for, I guess is the lesson it tells. That alone is not new or unique. But it goes with my dark humor, my love for comedy noir and theatre of the absurd. It's not necessary to retell these things," Cormier adds. "But it sure is fun."