Tom Lee and Koryu Nishikawa V’s Shank’s Mare at La MaMa’s new space, The Downstairs, is an opportunity to see some rare artistry at work. Kuruma Ningyo is a style of Japanese puppetry, similar to the better-known bunraku style, but with a single performer seated on a small rolling cart who operates the puppet by holding the puppet’s feet between his/her toes. Japanese puppetry involves intense training over many years, with each hard-earned role and name passed on from generation to generation. Nishikawa V is the fifth generation headmaster of the 160 year old company, Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo, and his illustrious lineage is evident in his fine and dedicated performance. Despite not having the heft of generations behind him, director Tom Lee brings to Shank’s Mare an impressive dedication to the skill of the traditional forms combined with his own finely honed and innovative aesthetic. As noted in the program, the puppets are American-made and the production uses kuruma ningyo-style puppetry (and occasionally a bunraku-style manipulation of the same puppets), but also breaks convention in several ways.
One would be hard-pushed to find fault with the beautifully constructed, wigged, and costumed puppets, or with the cast of puppeteers, who in their subtle and finely coordinated manipulation of the puppets truly exemplify ensemble work; in addition to the scenic interaction of the different puppets and the careful placement of props, several puppeteers may often be called on to manipulate different parts of a single puppet, ably abetted, moreover, by Chris Carcione providing live feed projection of a miniaturized set—allowing the production to create several beautiful illusions of the puppets passing through the landscape, or even descending into their own personal nightmare, or flying through the air. Animations by Robin Brater complete the evocation of the puppets’ world, and occasionally provide narrative detail through projected images. Much is also communicated by live music composed by Bill Ruyle and performed by Ruyle on hammered dulcimer and percussion and Chieko Hara on shamisen (a Japanese flute), both in terms of mood and narrative (somewhat after the style of early film soundtracks).
Indeed, character and narrative were already so clearly expressed through the combined work of the puppeteers and the musicians that I felt disappointed when more explicit narrative explanation was provided by silhouetted human actors and projected words. This also gave way to a break in the nostalgic, fairy tale-like aesthetic, by introducing cartoonish sound bubbles, including some very un-nostalgic four-letter expressions. The incongruity raises an easy laugh, but I don’t know that it was worth betraying the performative world so meticulously established from the outset. The narrative itself is rather secondary to the performance—a vaguely allegorical “story of life paths that wander and intersect, with the recognition that everything comes from somewhere.” Sadly, puppetry does seem to encourage this type of storytelling, where the plot is devised/contrived as a frame from which to showcase the puppets, endowed with an undefined sense of profundity.
But these are small complaints in what is otherwise an outstanding show. Ultimately, the imperfect narrative fades under the magic of such beautifully executed puppetry, visual effects and evocative music. Whatever their story, the puppets do convey a compellingly real sense of character and demonstrate the remarkable and paradoxical quality of being somehow more human, more affectively moving than many a fine actor.
This production is dedicated to the memory of Carol Pelletier, who was Lee’s colleague at Sarah Lawrence College and a talented costume designer, teacher, and remarkable human being. I had the fortune to be her student. Shank’s Mare is a fitting tribute.