A floating gold metallic face emerges from the shadows until it catches the bright side light of the miniature stage at one end of the auditorium.
We soon see, though, that the floating face is not a puppet but a gold mask worn by a person clad in black, and that the brightly lit hands and forearms floating before it are those of the actor wearing the mask.
Is it puppetry, is it avant-garde mime, or is it dance theater with masked dancers? The generic distinction is not as important as the differences that emerge between different levels of animation and of artifice. For in making us aware of the life of the actor behind the mask, and the invisible actor manipulating an even-more-vividly alive puppet, From the Ashes makes a profound statement about life and death, about mortality and godhead, and ultimately about the act of creation itself.
The gold-faced figure starts to manipulate a wad of clay, which soon becomes an inanimate hand. A three-foot-tall skeletal torso is drawn, one limb at a time, from beneath a pile of rags. The masked figure shapes another wad into a face. Soon -- in an act of creation no less magical and no less metaphorical than Pinocchio, Walt Disney's self-representation of his powers as an animator -- the miniature figure has taken on a life of his own, stretching his limbs, and becoming conscious both of his own existence and of the full-sized gold-faced creator towering beside him.
The puppet is soon joined by a mate, and then -- through a process of puppet procreation that combines the myths of Eve and Pandora and then follows rules all its own -- by a heroic male offspring. From this moment to the end of From the Ashes a little more than an hour later, the three-foot-tall puppets, in the person of our young hero, repeatedly try and fail to close the gap between themselves and their creators.
Author/puppetmaker/puppeteer Robert Smythe has evidently read a bit too much Joseph Campbell; the master-myth of the many-faced hero becomes a bit too schematic in From the Ashes, especially in the final revelation about masks and faces that frees our hero and sends him soaring out beyond the miniature proscenium in a magical epiphany at the end of the play.
But despite all this heavy-handed theology, From the Ashes is simply gorgeous. The performances of puppeteers Smythe, Bradley Pope and Lea Yeager (assisted by Scott Hitz) are a wonder to behold. The recorded score (by Adam Wernick), with its echoes of Japanese flutes and Indian ragas, is ravishing. And the transformations (e.g. the demonic impregnation of Eve/Pandora, the birth and growth of the hero, and especially the terrifying two-step metamorphosis of the hero into a stag) are astonishing.
From the Ashes was created in 1990, but has only been seen in the area during a brief run at People's Light & Theatre in 1992. With this appearance, Mum Puppettheatre inaugurates its new space, carved out of its studio space at the far up-river end of Manayunk. Smythe will revive his 1988 piece The Adventures of a Boy and His Dog in Outer Space in April; a full season, including several new pieces, is planned for next year.
-- Cary M. Mazer