The In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre is gearing up for its annual Mayday Parade, which, from the sound of things, is a logistical nightmare. I sometimes suspect it to be the beast of which the company is the heart, and as beasts go, it is magnificent.
But just before they begin work on this Powderhorn Park-consuming monster, they have found themselves with a small window of opportunity: a weekend in which to remount one of their earlier plays in preparation for bringing it to the Puppets 2002 Festival at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. And this remounting is worth noting, because again it details a beast, and again it is magnificent.
The production in question is Befriended by the Enemy, which the company first mounted in 1993, and which had its origins in an obituary, according to HOBT artistic director Sandy Spieler. Flipping through an issue of TIME magazine, Spieler discovered a notice of the death, in Lincoln, Nebraska, of a man named Larry Trapp, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. According to the obit, Trapp had experienced an unlikely change of heart in the last years of his life, moved by a single act of compassion on the part of a local Jewish family. By the time of his death, Trapp had moved in with the family and converted to Judaism.
Spieler marshaled her considerable talents as a designer to create this production, which she did in collaboration with Esther Ouray and the HOBT company, and the resulting play was glorious. Befriended was haunted, astonished, exquisitely detailed, and moving without ever growing maudlin, relying on expressive Bunraku-style puppets that looked beaten out of unmolded clay. Despite the roughness of the puppets' features, they genuinely resemble the subjects of their story, who contributed their memories of Trapp to the HOBT.
These memories, when detailing the seething, loathing Trapp who appears at the start of Befriended, were often chilling. Through their extensive research, the company came into the possession of one of Trapp's Klan robes, and Spieler recounts her amazement at holding the thing. She describes herself as taken aback by "how finely it was made--incredible seamsmanship, incredible craftsmanship." "I had always thought they were just sheets," Spieler relates. "It's kind of horrific."