No Strings

Bangles, baubles, shiny beads: Turning cloth into a creature

Why are puppets the perfect actors? "They're nonunion," deadpans Lee Breuer. It's a funny thought coming from a man who has spent a good portion of his 62 years directing some of experimental theater's best performers, but then Breuer is the same artist whose 1996 work An Epidog inspired the Obie Awards committee to honor a puppet for the first time ever.

In many ways it's more challenging to create a fully realized character for a puppet than a human actor, and the mechanics of staging may be all the more complex. Accordingly, Breuer and his collaborators Ushio Torikai, Basil Twist, and Cathy Shaw have spent nearly two weeks in a Walker Art Center-sponsored residency at Red Eye developing Red Beads, an "opera" combining music, movement, and puppetry that will appear this weekend as the first of probably many rough drafts before opening in New York next year.

While Twin Citians may be most familiar with Breuer as the creator of the internationally popular The Gospel at Colonus, he is best known elsewhere as a founding member of the influential Mabou Mines experimental theater group. The writer, director, lyricist, and performer has also worked tirelessly to integrate Japanese Bunraku puppetry (a traditional form involving onstage puppet manipulators and an offstage voiceover) and forms of computer animation into his new conception of American theater. While he first introduced puppets into Mabou Mines' repertoire with his Shaggy Dog Animation in 1978, Breuer was initially exposed to Bunraku in Paris ten years earlier. His more recent work, including the multi-Obie award-winner Peter and Wendy, continues a love affair with what Breuer enthusiastically describes as a "very mysterious and mystical" style that continually presents new possibilities for storytelling while encouraging his lifelong commitment to deconstructing conventional theater devices.

Artist residencies are dedicated to process rather than product, so it's no surprise to walk into Red Eye and find sundry materials littering the floor alongside a rather imposing and altogether curious contraption wrapped in white cloth. While Breuer has a completed script in hand, this is one of the few opportunities he has had to meet with Torikai, Twist, and Shaw in a laboratory setting. "Now we're working in terms of experimentation," he explains, alluding to this intensive time for road-testing puppets, matching music to staging, developing the cast (which includes Breuer's daughter Clove), and establishing long-term goals for the first and fourth sections of the work. There will be no "setting up improvisations," however; Breuer considers this open-ended approach an "old-style method" for performance creation. Instead he prefers simply "to see how the images lock together." With no scheduling or budgetary pressures looming in the near future, the artists have the rare luxury of actually enjoying the bumpy ride known as trial and error--at least for the time being.

The text for Red Beads is drawn from a poem by Breuer based on a Russian folktale (transported to turn-of-the-century New England) about the passage of feminine mystique across the generations. But don't expect any florid treatises on the rites of womanhood. "This is a ghost story," says Breuer, describing a dramatic motif revolving around "white witches" that owes more to Edgar Allan Poe than Naomi Wolf. "It's supposed to be basically scary," he adds. In this case, the spirits before us onstage will be constructed from broad swatches of Chinese silk propelled by wind machines and wrangled by Twist, a third-generation puppeteer revered for the tricky underwater puppet work in his recent off-Broadway hit Symphonie Fantastique. According to Breuer, the moving cloth should remind viewers of works by Loie Fuller, an early 20th-century choreographer who manipulated light and fabric to great cinematic effect. Enhancing this potent supernatural mixture is composer Torikai's iconoclastic blend of Western, Eastern, and electronic instrumentation paired with a vocal score performed live by members of the Twin Cities Women's Choir.

The future for Red Beads holds a full orchestra, a cast of some 30 performers, and a large-scale budget to match--not the typical Mabou Mines endeavor, yet still familiar ground for Breuer, an artist who has worked everywhere from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the smallest performance venues. "It's impossible to get rehearsal money these days, so we have to look for these types of developmental workshop structures to get this work off the ground," he says, revealing a pragmatism honed from years of making do with few resources. In the end, however, he also seems to relish the promise of accessibility that comes with the big productions--not to mention the opportunity to keep introducing the specter of experimental theater into some more stolid houses.


Red Beads will be performed at 8:00 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, July 8-10 and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, July 11 at Red Eye; (612) 375-7622.

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