I'm Your Puppet

Rug Burn: Pakistani children rejoice in cheerful sweatshop in HOBT's Web Sight.

Web Sight
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre

ONE NIGHT AT the Loring Bar, a friend and I fell into a game of "Six Degrees of Separation." It started out as a music-trivia competition: Can you connect Blind Lemon Jefferson and Olivia Newton-John? (He did it, too, though I don't remember how.) We found that Frank Zappa was a key link: He would not only hook you into a world of musicians but also an international community of political dissidents, from the chain-smoking Czech president Vaclav Havel to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement.

It's pretty heady to examine this wild human web, link by link. But the concept does not only apply to Native American philosophy or hippie-dippie pipe dreams: It's the way things work. This abstract daisy chain, and its political uses--including the World Wide Web--form the subtext for Web Sight, a beautiful, original new production from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.

But first--mic and spotlight please--it's time to recognize, and thank, In the Heart of the Beast (HOBT), now in its 24th year. For making it this long; for living on East Lake in a former porno movie theater (which they're about to finish payments on); for gathering the most racially diverse friends and audiences this side of Penumbra Theatre; for the May Day celebration; for making up with overflowing creativity what they lack in dollars; and for proselytizing the unique powers of puppetry.

I know puppetry sounds lame to the uninitiated: boring, cutesy, irrelevant. But at its best, puppetry is just as moving, serious, and astonishing as "regular" theater. Part of its charm is that a good puppet show delivers a sense of lingering ghosts, of invisible souls onstage; maybe it's the puppeteers, or the spirits they seem to funnel into the little paste-babies themselves. It feels like magic.

In one scene in Web Sight, which is based on a collection of true stories, a Pakistani boy named Iqbal is about to be sold into slavery. His parents are too poor to keep him, so they sell him for $16 to "the Carpetmaster," the owner of a rug factory/sweatshop. The boy puppet and his mother stand on a ledge facing each other, manipulated by three hooded figures. She cradles his face in her hands, stroking his hair slowly, with uncanny realism, while the two puppeteers manipulating her mirror the movement, embracing her as she draws the boy to her breast. It's a moment of shared intimacy between all five figures. The puppeteers are separate from these creatures, but somehow they are them.

Iqbal lives at the factory and works crazy shifts--upwards of 12 hours a day, seven days a week--tying knots while dreaming of flying off on his own magic carpet. One day, he runs away, a scene ingeniously conveyed through Southeast Asian-style shadow puppetry: Behind a white screen, black cutouts depict a town, and a small boy fleeing the factory with pursuit at his heels.

You may have heard of Iqbal: He's the kid who became an international spokesman against child labor, eventually becoming the Pakistani rug makers' professed number-one enemy. Iqbal was ultimately gunned down in the street. Interestingly, and to their credit, HOBT choose to show this death--though the moment borders on the precious. But perhaps when children are your audience it's necessary to illustrate clearly that death means, well, death.

The web theme continues, here, and things take an encouraging turn, as Iqbal's story ripples out to children in the West. A parade of brightly painted child puppets and props follows: One boy in Canada starts a letter campaign with his friends, travels to Asia to meet child slaves, and successfully lobbies the Canadian government against doing business with countries that allow child labor. Two girls in America use the Internet to raise funds to build a school in Iqbal's hometown. As the narrator/musician (Elisha Whittington) names groups that donated money, puppeteers appear in wacky corresponding costumes (a girl wearing a rhinoceros head covered in records represents Rhino Records).

The story ends in North Minneapolis, where a group of girls decide to do something about the violence in their community. These girls, of the Ruth Hawkins YWCA, are in the audience opening night; when the puppet representing their teacher appears, they call out, "Look, that's Salima!" The girls organize a march for peace, which is attended by 150 people (and they'll be having another one, too, on October 24). At the end of the show, they all climb onstage, proud and shy, to grand applause.

Lots of people, myself included, have a special fear of didactic theater: If I wanted an easy message, I'd the buy the card. But HOBT is the exception to this rule. For one, the case against child labor is as compelling as it is clear. And the political agenda behind the show is balanced by freewheeling creativity, a sense of joy, and rock-solid technique (though it's sometimes hard to hear the puppeteers speak through their hoods). The result is not a sense of being talked at. Instead, it's a breakdown of the barrier between stage and audience, between puppets and actors, between this small theater and the whole wide world.

Web Sight runs through November 16; call 721-2535.

 
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