Live Active Cultures

By a week past New Year’s, it’s time to strike the twinkle lights and pack the plastic tree back into the attic. For most North Americans, it certainly isn’t time to start opening presents. But if you are familiar with Latin American culture, you know that the Christmas season isn’t complete until Three Kings Day (also known to Catholic school survivors as the Epiphany). The celebration that concludes the traditional 12 days of Christmas (yes, just like in the song) is usually accompanied by sweet cakes studded with tooth-shattering trinkets, but for this year’s, Orlando was given a gorgeous gift with no orthodontics involved, made not of gold, frankincense and myrrh but of felt, foam and fabric.

Any time I talk about puppetry in Orlando (a not-too-infrequent occurrence) there’s about a 90 percent chance that Heather Henson is involved, and yes, the purveyor of Ibex Puppetry has her name on this latest show as producer. But there’s another member of the Henson clan who has put a much stronger stamp on the show I attended last Saturday afternoon at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. As executive producer and conceptual designer, the aesthetic fingerprints of Jane Henson are all over her Nativity Story in a way not seen since she created Kermit and friends with her late husband Jim a half-century ago.

I’ve driven past St. John’s a thousand times on my way from the Loch Haven Park to the Steak ’n Shake on Highway 17-92, but have never thought of it as anything but the place with the big bell tower and the lot full of pumpkins each October. Now I wish I’d stopped by sooner, since the sanctuary where Henson’s show was staged is a simply stunning assemblage of swooping ceilings, subtle stained glass and sinuous steely organ pipes.

The 35-minute show was introduced by Sean Keohane, executive director of Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater in Altamonte Springs, who did dramaturgy on the script and provided the unexpectedly booming voice of God (in Latin, no less). Even though there wasn’t a string in sight and the puppeteers performed from below, not above, Keohane explained this show’s direct historical connection to marionettes: The word itself means “tiny Mary” and derives from the puppets used in medieval mystery and miracle plays.

While Jim Henson and Frank Oz are embedded in the public’s imagination as creators of the indelible Muppet characters, few know Jane was a collaborator and co-puppeteer from Jim’s first days on live television. She left performing before Sesame Street to raise the Henson children (of whom Heather is the youngest), and though she has supported many other artists over the years as a producer, this piece is the first work that she has creatively spearheaded in the decades since.

Though the figures depicting the holy family and other nativity notables were constructed by the famously inventive Jim Henson Co. Creature Shop along with wildly creative props designer “Wavy” Davy Jordan, their forms all flowed from Jane Henson’s more conservative style. So don’t go expecting the three wise men in this retelling of Christ’s birth to boast bug eyes or to break out into “Mahna Mahna”; these delicate rod-operated figures (some with faces hand-sculpted by Jane herself) have a gracefully elegant style that recalls an antique manger scene blended with the expressive simplicity of bunraku totems.

On the human side, the cast included Brandon Peters (Gabriel), Tony Bolante(Joseph), Sarah Lockard (Mary) and Jessi Riese (Melchior) among the local stage actors crouching behind the multilayered stage built by Vandy Wood. The costumed Olde Noyse Trio (John Rata, Cecilia Catron and Craig Thomas) punctuated the proceedings with religious Renaissance tunes. Some of the vocal performances were a little heavy on faux-Biblical Masterpiece Theater affectations for my taste, but the physical manipulation of the stick-and-rod figures was exquisite; the ecstatic angle of Mary’s arms as she floats in post-annunciation bliss was captured beautifully. I also appreciated how humor was used to leaven the more troublesome aspects of the narrative, like Joseph’s doubts and Herod’s cruelty, without glossing over them.

The best part of this final Christmas present was that the show I saw, along with a couple of well-attended private performances held the day before, were all free to attendees thanks to Heather and Jane Henson’s generosity. And as a bonus gift, I learned from Keohane that, following a dangerously thin Thanksgiving, Pinocchio’s had a banner holiday season and would not be shutting down again as he had feared. That’s New Year’s news worth raising a glass – or puppet – to.

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