Toy Theater

10th International Toy Theater Festival
produced by Great Small Works, off-off-Broadway

Deborah Kaufman

Toy theater (also called boy’s theater) was a miniature theater form that began in the early 19th century. Proscenium, sets and puppets were printed on paper sheets, assembled at home, and manipulated with wires during performance in the parlor. The whole thing mimicked ordinary theater of the day.

Great Small Works is a company that recently produced the 10th International Toy Theater Festival, a collection of works from many places that bring the form into the 21st century using the conventions of 19th century toy theatre to various degrees. I managed to see a few of the many pieces.

The Way of the Mask (Animal Cracker Conspiracy) offers us some lovely small toy theater puppets on a nice toy theater stage, perhaps one-and-a-half feet square. The stage picture is projected overhead – hardly an element of traditional toy theatre, but necessary now that the form has left the parlor.

a little ambiguity over there (Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky) has a toy proscenium set and puppets, not to mention real objects out of proportion to the stage. From time to time Lang intrudes on the paper presentation, throwing stuff at the puppets or dumping the pineapples on them. It’s a riff on toy theatre, very post-modernist and interesting.

Let’s Copy Each Other so we can be Copy Cats (Jessica Peri Chalmers and Mike Stumm) has actors and ordinary-sized puppets on stage. It’s not any sort of toy theater. It’s an annoying piece that the producers should have declined.

Lava Fossil (Beth Nixon, Ramshackle Enterprises) uses six suitcases and a lamp for an autobiographical trip. This isn’t toy theater either, but standard “performance art”, well done.

Five Exclusively Ordinary Toy Theater Shows (Zach Dorn) is comprised of five short pieces on a toy stage with overhead projections. In fact, the stage doesn’t even face the audience, so that the work is really a video. But the pieces are great, especially the one about the fellow who enters an open-mike contest for the saddest story. “Instead of boo hoo,” he tells us, “all I could hear was boo.”

BURIED ALIVE! (Deborah Kaufman) is billed as matchbox theatre, and it really does use matchboxes of a few sizes for a very funny and delicate piece of toy theater grand guignol - an ideal combination of forms. It’s based on ghoulish Victorian-or-so methods of dealing with the newly dead, including for example, a waiting mortuary, where bodies were kept and minded for a while until the establishment was sure they were dead. Cool!

The most compelling piece I saw was The Reptile under the Flowers (Janie Geiser). It consists of 12 stations; the small audience (only a few of us) walks through them. It uses, among other things, transparent boxes to display its puppets and sets; one has peep holes that we peer through. Lovely, mysterious, somber images. There’s a narrative that’s so obscure we can’t follow it, but we’re happy to see the expressionist sights. Wonderful, creative work.

In most of these there was no attempt to leave out the puppeteers, whose presence was obvious and entertaining.  In fact, Five Exclusively Ordinary Toy Theater and BURIED ALIVE! depend totally on the narration of the artist, and succeed by virtue of their personalities.

Let’s see what the festival offers next year.

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