Master of Surprise

Amy Danielson

If you have seen one puppet show, or if you have seen 1,000, this is a show that you cannot justify skipping. Puppetry aficionados around the country have discovered the artistry of Michael Sommers. Now it’s time for Twin Cities residents, beyond the theater community and puppetry junkies, to behold Sommers, the puppet master.

This is puppetry of the uncanny: It floats above the surface, making silly jokes and submerges to explore theoretical issues; it fascinates with ingenious physicality while relishing in simplicity; it horrifies with dark and disturbing seriousness while delighting in playful elegance; it’s both sublime and banal. It is dichotomous in every way, in every signification. It is indescribable in 800 words.

Puppetry inherently promotes an exploration of the metaphysical. Puppets, unlike live actors, can do and signify anything. Bound by strings or sticks or fingers, they are locked into a predetermined form, yet with their master’s power of manipulation, their movements are nearly limitless: puppets are suddenly able to fly, mutilate themselves or do anything impossible to live actors. Of course, this is not how all puppetry expounds. Great puppeteers and object manipulators make the most absurd movements seem suddenly resplendent, infusing the simplest objects with life.

Sommers is one of these rare experts. Perhaps this is due to his obsessions – to visual detail, to precise movement, to symbolism. Yet, Sommers never tries to mask himself as a puppeteer. In fact, he spends much of his time moving about the set, sticking his face through it and cavorting in front of it. This self-exposure makes his work particularly interesting as it draws attention to what it is, instead of disguising it in an attempt to artificially draw the viewer into an imaginary world. Instead, by his exposure, the audience is given a more direct entrance into his head.

Presented by Open Eye Figure Theatre, of which Sommers is co-founder and artistic director, he is joined by director and accordion player Susan Haas and performer Nancy Seward McLean in his latest creation, Suitcase Narratives. Sommers opens the show with a song which he demands the audience sings with him, McLean and Haas on accordion. The lyrics, “One, two, three, four, Kasper Reeka Fa La La” are painted on a fold-up wooden sign held by McLean for the audience to follow along. Kasper, a character who refuses to deal with the devil after much deliberation, is from Sommers’ first self-produced, full-length production A Prelude to Faust.

This gets us in the mood for an energetic opening act entitled, “The Elusive It.” Here, Sommers and McLean manipulate a puppet man and a puppet apple respectively. The man chases after the apple and Sommers poses several abstract comments and questions throughout: “What is the it? He might have to suffer for it. Do you have it? Do you get it?” A small rectangular slate hovers over the miniature stage designed for a foot-tall puppet and his apple (it, signified). Before the show begins, the slate displays a few vertical and diagonal lines, but by the end, Sommers has written and wiped away multiple phrases and words describing the conundrum of the hard to get hold of it. Sommers plays with words as much as he does with the puppets. Phrases, as elusive as “it,” written with chalk and erased with a shammy (with which he tries to scare us: “Boo! It’s not a ghost, it’s a shammy”) become moving images in puppet form. What would you do for it? The puppet man falls in slow-motion to the ground and walks a tightrope attached to an audience member only to get a thoroughly chewed core.

Oh, it’s so much fun to see a work that appeals to a spectator on many levels. Next, Sommers introduces a more emotional narrative with “Love, Go Figure.” Here he concocts a visceral world intermingled with epithets for love that move across an illuminated scroll. From behind the mini-stage, Sommers projects a scrolling diorama which depicts images of human faces, burning buildings, and monstrous figures, all seeming to stream out of a puppet’s brain.

Lastly, in “Homage to Louise Bourgeois,” Sommers rolls out a red and black painted table of contraptions which compliments his narrative. He chants “We’ve got eyes that see that can’t see. We’ve got ears that hear that can’t hear.” He hypnotizes himself with a black and white spinning gizmo. He lights a ladder of matches that burns to the top and triggers an apparatus that drops a bell on a puppet’s head. He pulls strings connected to a punching-puppet’s severed arms which pound on a miniature bass drum. All of this somehow pays respect to Louise Bourgeois, a conceptual artist who, like Sommers, creates art that draws heavily on theoretical themes and disturbed emotions.


Suitcase Narratives plays through Nov. 3
at Franklin Art Works, (612) 823-5162.