There is something of the schoolteacher to Michael Sommers tonight. He stands before a small puppet theater built atop a suitcase, a piece of black slate affixed above it. Here, he has drawn some lines in chalk, and now he fills the lines in, forming words: "How do you get IT." Sommers, dressed in a black suit, face gaunt, fixes his eyes on the small audience that has assembled at the Franklin Art Works. He commands them with a pedagogic foreign phrase, Spanish perhaps, which sounds very much like "Escuche y repita." The audience repeats his handwritten phrase aloud, then: "How do you get IT."
Despite these trappings of the academy, Sommers is as goofy an onstage presence as ever. He produces a white cloth on a string and dangles it before the audience, calling out, "Boo!" His voice then rises a half-octave, his eyes closing to a mischievous slit. "It's not a ghost," he tells his audience. "It's a shammy." And with that, Sommers uses the cloth to erase the slate. Sommers is performing what he dubs Suitcase Narratives, produced by his year-old company, the Open Eye Figure Theatre. He has been doing shows like these for two decades--compact puppet and object performances, designed to fit into a suitcase and meant to be performed in the street.
Tonight, Sommers presents three of these plays. The first, with Sommers in schoolteacher mode, is titled "The Elusive It," and is a marionette show. The performance begins with an introduction by Kaspar, a big-nosed trickster ("like Punch, or Petruschka," Sommers explains two days later by telephone, "but from Eastern Europe"), and also stars a hollow-cheeked Everyman figure in a herringbone suit. These two figures--who also starred in Sommers's production of A Prelude to Faust--act out a comical parable, chasing after an apple that has a perplexing habit of waving its stem like two mocking arms. "I had these trick mannequins," Sommers says by way of explaining his material. And, indeed, the Everyman does tricks, climbing ladders, shimmying across rope bridges, and juggling. "I thought a trick mannequin show would be a nice way to start the evening," Sommers says.
So it is, because Sommers's remaining two shows dive into oblique metaphoric territory. The next routine, titled "Love, Go Figure," begins with a simple cutout figure of a cloud hopping around onstage, brandishing a pencil-shaped dowel like an erection. The dowel drops into Sommers's waiting hand, and, from behind the cutout clouds, a doll head drops atop it. Holding this makeshift puppet, Sommers spreads his thumb and forefinger like two tiny arms. The forefinger has a bow glued to it, the thumb, an arrow. Voilà, Sommers has produced a simple puppet--Cupid. This fellow leads the audience through a panoramic dream world, courtesy of a machine of light and mirrors, called an opaque projector. Here, headless figures seem to vomit water into streams, from which fish leap, severed arms emerging from their mouths.
If Sommers's second suitcase narrative is oblique, his third, titled "Homage to Louise Bourgeois," is deliberately nonsensical. Rather than tell a story, Sommers has constructed an elaborate machine of objects, many of which are connected by matches. Sommers will interact with one object--a kettle, say, which he treats like a hyperactive puppy. The kettle will then urinate, puppylike, into a bowl, wetting dry ice that reveals a bathing puppet in a cloud of smoke. A hypno wheel attached to the set will send Sommers into a zombielike trance, and the matches--and there are hundreds of them--ignite each other, setting off a chain reaction that drops an anvil onto the head of the bathing puppet.
"I was interested in developing a show that also worked as an object, as a sculpture," Sommers says. "Eventually I took all the narrative elements out, so that it was just objects interacting. It was terrible." So Sommers performs this with something like a narrative thread, in the form of himself, bustling from action to reaction as dictated by his object machine. Prompting the ultimate question: Who's the puppet master and who the puppet?