The puppeteer steps forward, watching the creatures he is creating with his hands, while we sit mesmerized by an illusion that is no less magical because we can see it being created.Fantoccini (from the Italian for puppets) are what the English traditionally call short puppet interludes used to cover scene changes in a larger stage production. Appropriately, Fantoccini is the name that Mum Puppettheatre has given to a program of short sketches, vaudevilles and improvisations -- bits and pieces that Robert Smythe and his fellow puppeteer Bradley Pope have worked up in their spare time while they were developing their longer, more ponderous and ambitious full-length works.
The first half of the program now being presented at Mum's headquarters in Manayunk (the first of what promises to be an annual series) is effectively a silent introductory lecture to Puppetry 101. Puppets are as simple as a Styrofoam ball on an index finger or a glove on a hand. A yellow cone makes it a bird (for a dramatization of the children's book, Are You My Mother, read aloud by an audience member); a suction cup and a toilet plunger become weapons of conquest. Hands become bodies, and yet still remain hands. Pope's bared knee, wearing Pope's hat, starts to read Pope's newspaper, and then seduces Pope's other, now flirtatious, knee; Smythe's gloved hand becomes a swan, dancing a graceful pas de deux with his other hand. Often, the puppeteers remain concealed in the darkness or behind a curtain; at other times -- when we watch the dancing swans, for example -- the puppeteer will step forward, watching the creatures he is creating with his hands, and darting bemused glances at the audience, while we sit, mesmerized by an illusion that is no less magical because we can see it being created.
Smythe has the hands of a dancer (or, rather, his hands often become dancers); and Pope has the body of a clown. Pope gets to use his clown's persona in the second half of the program, when he wages and loses a fight to the death with a prop chest. The rest of the second half is a puppet version of the standard improv-troupe audience-participation sketch, except here the audience not only shouts out the characters or the setting or the action or the mood to be improvised, but also selects a set of random objects from a wheelbarrow (someone selected the wheelbarrow itself at the performance I attended), which Smythe and Pope then bring to life.
But, lest we lose our sense of wonder from the silent, magical, first half, the two step back into the puppetmaster-darkness, and create a kaleidoscopic flurry of hands and objects that brings the evening to an explosive Busby Berkeley conclusion -- a fitting conclusion to an evening of simple fun and pure magic.
-- Cary M. Mazer