The Puppet Master

After two decades as a theatrical jack-of-all-trades, Michael Sommers pulls the strings for his first full-length performance

"I've just got to find the boob tube!" Michael Sommers says, pawing through a mess of wine glasses, candles, wax apples, and other sundry supplies. On the ministage in front of him, marionette Kasper sits, his clog-clad feet tapping against the wooden stage as if to say, please people, I'm trying to work here. Kasper has every right to be grumpy. A few minutes back, one of his wooden eyes fell out while he was practicing some audience interaction ("Hey, whatcha drinking? Did you read the review in City Pages? Puppet theater--we're a metaphor, get it?"). Kasper--and puppeteer Julian McFaul--yelped at the ophthalmic injury, and director Sommers laughed, "That's all right, keep going."

Now Kasper's eye is back in place, and while waiting for his scene to resume, he gazes lovingly at wife Lil, a grotesque creation in smeared lipstick standing stage right, deflated red balloons drooping at her chest. Sommers finds the "boob tube"--a clear plastic hose--and hooks it up to Lil, then takes his own place behind the puppet stage, ready to blow life into these sagging breasts. Kasper stands up and, in his high-pitched gravelly voice, begins to intone, "Boobicus Maximus! Mammarus Enlargus!"

Michael Sommers pulls the strings with this group of artistic associates
Daniel Corrigan
Michael Sommers pulls the strings with this group of artistic associates

Kasper's a wooden sort of chap who stands a little over a foot tall; his large flapping ears and bald dome make him look vaguely like Col. Klink as an expressionist homunculus. Kasper's story is part of A Prelude to Faust, which opens this week as part of the Walker Art Center's "Adventures in New Puppetry" series. The play, which blends the stories of Goethe's and Marlowe's Faust, is the brainchild of local puppeteer, visual artist, musician, actor, director, and all-around font of creativity Michael Sommers.

Over the past two decades, Sommers, 43, has worked on dozens of local shows. He's been a fixture on the Minneapolis theater scene since he moved here from college in Milwaukee. (In the Heart of the Beast puppet guru Sandy Spieler recalls having a long-haired, college-aged Sommers visit her studio: "He just stood in our basement looking at the puppets.") At the Guthrie, he composed and performed the incidental music for both the acclaimed history cycle and the Greek plays in the '80s. At the Jungle, he performed in Waiting for Godot opposite Kevin Kling in 1996, and directed Kling's The Ice-Fishing Play in 1994. At Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Sommers created the much praised puppet performance of The Juniper Tree in 1995. He has been a regular performer at cabaret performances all about town, as a puppeteer and performance artist, and as a member of the music/performance group Bad Jazz with Kling and storyteller Loren Niemi.

"Michael is the real thing," says Casey Stangl of Eye of the Storm, who enlisted Sommers to design the set for last spring's How I Learned to Drive. "He's one of the few authentic jacks-of-all-trades there are around here. Other people do a lot of things, but few can do so much with the integrity and artistry that Michael has."

Like Stangl, many who have collaborated with Sommers wax orgiastic on his contributions. Charlie Newell, who directed the history plays at the Guthrie, calls Sommers "one of the most uniquely creative and spontaneous artists that I know." While Sommers refers to this work as "a wonderful training school," recently his focus has shifted to developing his own creations.

In this, Sommers has been helped by the Walker Art Center, which is producing Sommers's biggest effort to date. "I think Michael has been long undervalued as a significant creator of his own work," says performing arts curator and puppet aficionado Philip Bither. "Like a lot of puppeteers, he's used to functioning on an underground level. Michael hasn't had a chance to do a full-length puppet work of his own. I hope this show will [cause] people around the country to sit up and wonder who Michael Sommers is and hopefully put him in their festivals. It's time."

Appearing in a series with prominent puppeteers like Ping Chong, Lee Breuer, and Bread & Puppet Theater can't hurt his chances. And with the backing of the Walker and several grants, Sommers is now poised to create a work that he has long imagined. "I've always wanted to do Faustas a puppet play," says Sommers. "But I'm not quite ready yet, so I thought I'd do the prelude." The story of Faust--of glory won at great cost--is strangely appropriate for a puppeteer. This, after all, is a trade that doesn't appear in any Labor Department statistics for hot jobs of the next millennium. Sommers and other puppet artists must at some point choose between living as an artist and, well, living. Sommers shares a house with wife Sue Haas, also an artist, and their three children. "We don't have a little cabin on the lake, or a speedboat," he says. "Actually, we don't have any money at all."

The meaning of choice, then, is Sommers's fascination. "What really interested me about Faust was being in that state where he's able to take this incredible action, to sign his soul away," he explains. Sommers, who is tall and lanky, with salt-and-pepper hair masked by a polar fleece stocking cap, speaks in a rush of clauses, seemingly at a rate of one period per paragraph. "A lot of times I think my work is about human beings and their bottom line. We all sign on the dotted line and then what kind of wake do we leave?"

Sommers's show looks at icons of choice, from the comic Kasper (who considers and refuses the deal with the devil) to Faust himself. Apples magically appear, hovering in the air, while wine glasses refill themselves, doors open and shut, and candles light without apparent human intervention. The result is a melding of narrative and image, an exploration of free will and its ramifications. Heady stuff, sure, but in Sommers's adept hands, these concepts promise to surface in the form of a wildly imagistic black comedy. How intellectual can a show be with the line, "Breasticus Magnificus?"

There in the conjunction of mammaries and Mephistopheles lies Sommers's distinctive style. "You know immediately you are in the universe of Michael Sommers," Bithers explains. "His work is so visually stunning. He has such a balance between playfulness and...a dark and individualistic sensibility. He's able to tap into the childlike part of him, but from a very adult, late-20th-century perspective. His work is dark and wonderful."

Bither uses phrases like "disturbed circus carnival" and "decrepit Americana" to describe the look of Sommers's show. Loren Niemi describes the same aesthetic in a set piece from the Bad Jazz show Forgiveness and Loss. "There were two banners that hung on each side of the stage," he recalls. "On one is an... unhappy man in an overcoat, hat pulled down, carrying suitcases while a cloud rains upon him. This image is the essential manifestation of Michael's aesthetic: visual simplicity coupled with metaphoric reference. It is a mix of classically naive folk and vaudeville styles. It speaks to me directly; it satisfies. It leaves me with little moments of emotional content so precise and powerful I reference them in memory months after the fact."

Indeed, in rehearsal Sommers's attention to visual detail is intense--almost comically obsessive. Take the scene called "Dante and Marmoset with the Poodle." It begins with Kate Brehn marching a wooden furry dog with big dumb poodle eyes. The poodle pauses, her hind legs go up, and we hear: PSSSSSSSSSS.

"Great, great. Let the peeing be the business, Kate. That's all we need," Sommers interjects while untangling his marionette, Dante--a many-jointed, four-legged, horned (and horny) creature. The poodle pees and Sommers's Dante peers out from stage right. He sniffs. The poodle wags its poodle butt. Dante crawls onstage and growls with glee. His head spins around, Exorciststyle. He sprints to the poodle and rises on his hind legs. His hips thrust back and forth and his head lolls back. His long corded tail waves in the air. The poodle pants.

Sommers's head peeks over the stage: "How does that look, Julian? Is the story clear?" McFaul laughs and Sommers asks, "The humping bit is worth it, right? I mean the audience paid 15 bucks."

Though he may have been joking, here, underneath the comment, lies another one of Sommers's current obsessions: People are actually going to see this show, and what if it's a disaster? "I was talking to Philip Bither early on about the show," Sommers recalls, "and I said, 'You know, it might totally crash and burn. It might be the stinkiest thing ever.' And Philip said, 'Well that's great. If it's a failure, it's a failure. Just make sure if it sucks, it really sucks.'"

A Prelude to Faust plays at Patrick's Cabaret from November 18 through December 6; 375-7622.

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