Pleased as Punch

Orlando International Puppet Festival
July 10, 21, 25 and 26 at Orlando Repertory Theatre and
Orlando Shakespeare Theatre

Puppets are big in Orlando, thanks to the colorful and furry presence of Ibex Puppetry, owned by Heather Henson, daughter of the legendary Jim Henson of Muppet fame. Ibex is headquartered in Orlando, in an inconspicuous workshop on the fringe of downtown. This is where Henson, 38, and partners Jamie Donmoyer, 30, and Sean Keohane, 44, devise inventive puppet activity — most notably the Orlando Puppet Festival, which completed its third annual affair last October. And here's a news flash: There won't be a 2009 event this fall.

Instead, here comes the new and somewhat confusing Orlando International Puppet Festival, which begins Friday, July 10, and continues into the Target Family Theatre Festival (July 17-26) at the Orlando Repertory Theatre. The merging of the two events may be somewhat misleading, though: The puppet troupes performing from France, Spain, Mexico and Canada represent the vanguard of 21st-century puppetry. These are not your typical kiddie shows, but they play on different levels; both young and old are tickled pink and intellectually engaged.

For example, one of the French groups, Compagnie La Pendue, performs Punchy Draw, an update of the Punch and Judy street shows that date back to 17th-century England. Before that, the character of the long-nosed, eternally provocative Punch was derived from the 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte character Pulcinella. A DVD preview of the Compagnie La Pendue production, spoken in French, featured two adorable human actors in the roles of Punch and Judy — no strings attached. While it's still engaging when performed in French, the Orlando presentation will be in English, which no doubt will aid the storytelling.

When it comes to Punch and Judy history, Keohane is the resident expert, having translated from the French Merchant of Blows-With-a-Stick by Louis Edmond Duranty (Charlemagne Press, 2007). This man is a trivia receptacle for all things puppet, having worked for years with Disney before joining Ibex. Keohane can explain how puppets have played different roles since ancient history. They've been used by organized religions to spread the word, and Keohane says that in ancient India, puppets were considered the gods. In the streets of London, puppetry was a competitive street art and trade secrets were guarded with deadly seriousness. Keohane suggests this may have contributed to the dark side of puppetry, associated with black magic as an explanation for the unexplainable illusions created.

Another big, big secret about the character of Punch is how his harsh voice has been created throughout the years, using an ancient device called a "swazzle." The small reedy contraption, held in the throat (and easily swallowed), can distort human voices. The inner workings of puppetry, including the swazzle, have been handed down in a secret code that is still so binding that Keohane got a little uptight when he felt like too much information was being revealed. So puppeteers do have a venerable air of intrigue hanging over them.

While Orlando has the Henson touch, it's Atlanta that has grown into the puppet hub of the country, says Henson. That city's Center for Puppetry Arts selected the live programming for the upcoming event, which was also chosen for the 2009 National Puppetry Festival in Georgia (July 14-19), before the puppeteers arrive in Central Florida. The point: The Orlando International Puppet Festival is a chance to see cutting-edge displays of global puppetry without a drive to Atlanta. (See the schedule for details.)

The Henson family is heavily invested in the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, with grand plans underway for the Jim Henson Wing of the facility, which will house about 500 items of memorabilia and is set to open in 2012. Networking within the global community keeps Henson and Ibex and her talented collaborators in the forefront of contemporary puppetry.

The festival brings innovations in puppetry to Orlando, like the Auto Show by Amy Rush. "Find a parking place and we'll bring the show to you!" reads the press release. Donmoyer was responsible for this find, and it works like this: Those interested in playing along park their cars in a designated parking lot and flash their headlights. That's the cue for a handful of puppet fanatics to surround your car and perform just for you. It's a freebie, as is the Handmade Puppet Dreams international film festival.

Another freebie is the Crossing Borders seminar, sponsored by the Puppeteers of America and UNIMA-USA (a chapter of the world's oldest organization dedicated to puppets). UNIMA reps from Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico will discuss "opportunities of exchanges and encounters between puppeteers, puppet companies and educators in the region."

Another recommendation for the international festival is to catch Nosferatu, from the Bob Théâtre in France. It's nothing like you expect, opening on a dark stage where a glowing orb provides only enough light to silhouette the two human characters that relay the original story of the cinematic character Dracula. It's spooky and unpredictable and made for late-night hipster entertainment, according to Donmoyer. There's only one evening performance, so get those tickets in advance.

Having more one-off events throughout the year is the strategy for Ibex, rather than mashing their ideas into one annual festival. And partnering with as many other local art organizations as possible is an ongoing pursuit. The Orlando International Puppet Festival is a product of such alliance-building, involving the Orlando Rep, the Orlando Shakes and the Target Theatre Family Festival, in addition to co-hosts MicheLee Puppets and Pinocchio's Marionette Theatre.

For consumers, just remember that in the new world of puppetry, strings are not always attached.

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