Shows Worth Seeing:
By Tom Lee and Koryu Nishikawa V
La Mama ETC, The Downstairs
66 E. 4th St.
The La Mama Puppet Series is a biannual lineup of “performing object” performances that brings a month of remarkably subtle and powerful, even virtuosic, puppet work to New York City. The festival nevertheless struggles to generate the sort of buzz it deserves. The opening show of the 2015 series—which also inaugurates La Mama’s newest performance space, a splendidly wide black box called The Downstairs—is an unforgettable co-creation by the Chinese-American designer and director Tom Lee and the master Japanese puppeteer Koryu Nishikawa.
Shank’s Mare works a contemporary variation on kuruma ningyo—a 19th-century form in which each puppet is manipulated by a single performer sitting on a rolling cart, who controls the head and arms with his hands and the feet with his toes. The puppet-puppeteer relationships in this tradition can be extremely moving and finespun, and when you mix in modern touches like a little electric message-delivery car and a fluorescent spider web that morphs into a heaven-spanning tightrope, the result is marvelously resonant. “Shank’s mare” is a quaint term for traveling by foot rather than by animal or vehicle, and this show follows two parallel walking journeys: one by a man struggling with despair after his young son is killed, the other by a master astronomer who is gruff to his earnest and faithful young assistant but then grows to respect and rely on the boy.
There is a magical, quasi-mythical aura to the action, which seems to embrace several complete life-cycles at once and which also incorporates rear-projected video of recorded scenes and live scenes shot by a hand-held camera moving around a model landscape that’s visible off to one side. The show is exquisite. Only very rarely have I seen puppet alchemists mix so many diverse elements together to produce such a lustrous end-reaction.