La MaMa theater reopens with weird and enchanting puppets

Sonia enters naked, far behind the stage. Even from afar, she is an imposing presence, larger than either of the men who help her walk....


Sonia enters naked, far behind the stage. Even from afar, she is an imposing presence, larger than either of the men who help her walk.

All right, running her. Sonia is a puppet, and she would be inert without them.

Not for a moment does it feel like this, however, in “Lunch with Sonia”, a painfully beautiful entry into La MaMa’s annual puppet festival. These puppeteers are her keepers, surely – because in this piece of puppetry and dance, Sonia is ill, and her tottering body needs help as she puts on a dress and painfully walks down the stage to her large, rimmed chair. golden. Where, holding her court, she begins to enchant us.

The festival, now in its second week and running through October 24, opens the post-closure season of the venerable East Village Theater. I regret to inform you that “Lunch with Sonia” has finished its tour. But of the four productions I’ve seen in this year’s lineup, this is one of two that made me extremely grateful that La MaMa once again lends its stages to weird, daring, gorgeous live performances. and away from the mainstream.

More information on “Sonia” in a moment, because there is still time to attend the other show that absolutely grabbed me: the weird and nostalgic “Body Concert” by Lone Wolf Tribe, which takes place on Sundays in upstairs in the cavernous Ellen Stewart Theater.

Like “Sonia”, these are adult puppets – ideally the non-disgusting kind, given that a small flock of severed body parts are involved. They are made of foam rubber, but still.

Kevin Augustine, who created this piece of butoh-inspired puppets and movements, the performer wearing a dance belt, with his hands, feet and head colored in white. In mostly dim and hazy lighting, by Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa, Augustine animates an oversized skull; a huge eye; and a giant arm and leg bare of skin, each a mass of muscles and veins. There’s also a heart and jaw, and a baby semi-skeleton with an unclosed fontanel.

I can’t really tell you why it’s so fascinating to see the leg using its knee and toes to cross the floor, or just what makes it slightly poignant – although when Mark Bruckner’s music introduces the piano, a note of nostalgia enters. As comical as it is when the arm, with clawed fingers, slaps on the head, there is an element of nostalgia there as well. These disparate bits of bodies, not very good in themselves, want to be united. Wanting to be alive.

Sonia, meanwhile, wants to be dead. It’s the tension inside the Loco7 Dance Puppet Theater Company’s “Lunch with Sonia”, whose matriarch heroine intends to end her life before debilitation takes away that choice. But first, we learn in the voiceover, she will have a month of farewell, some with family members still trying to talk her out of it.

Created and directed by Federico Restrepo and Denise Greber – with choreography and puppet, lighting, video and scenography by Restrepo – “Sonia” elevates a tale tinged with sorrow towards a joyful kingdom, with Sonia at the center, eager to dance in bright pink Crocos. The play is inspired by Restrepo’s experience with his own Aunt Sonia, and it is naturally a little longer than it should be: the result of the living longing to resurrect our lost loved ones and to linger in their company.

The other two festival shows I saw, both in the more intimate ground floor theater, were less successful. The first, Watoku Ueno’s shadow puppet piece “The Tall Keyaki Tree” (whose run is over), is visually and auditally appealing, with live music by Shu Odamura. But the story – inspired by Koda Rohan’s novel “The Five-Story Pagoda,” about a carpenter building a pagoda out of wood from a tree he loved as a child – is overwhelming.

Sandglass Theater’s “When I Put Your Glove on”, which runs through Sunday, has a touching premise. Created and performed by Shoshana Bass, it is a tribute to her puppeteer father, Eric Bass, and an exploration of artistic heritage. Using four of her puppets, she reconstructs some of her most famous works, but she has not found a way to bring them to life.

Directed by Gerard Stropnicky, with design and construction by Shoshana Bass’s mother, Ines Zeller Bass, the play makes striking metaphorical use of falling sand. He also shows us excerpts from a Eric Bass performance, which are more magnetic than any living element in this show.

Also note the exhibition of the Richard Termine puppet photography festival, which takes place until Sunday in the gallery space of La MaMa. It is a beautiful study of the form seen on the stages of New York; there’s even a brief but robust section on puppets during the pandemic.

For people who have experienced performances on these walls, the images will be particularly vivid. As a line from “When I Put On Your Glove” says: “What animates the puppeteer is not the puppeteer, but the breath of memory with which we all fill it. The same goes for filmed puppets.

La MaMa puppet series

Until October 24 at La MaMa, Manhattan; lamama.org.

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