'Toy Theatre After Dark' delights with inventiveness


The opening moments of Program 2 at the fifth annual Toy Theatre After Dark festival featured a performer seemingly trapped inside of a television set. Silently, she found a way out, as she drew a door on the top of her prison and popped out.

Clever, inventive staging and set pieces are the name of the game for this event, which is co-sponsored by the Walker Art Center and Open Eye Figure Theatre. The latter also serves as the host for the festival, with its small-scale stage serving as a perfect setting for these tiny pieces of theater.

While Program 1 is intended for all ages, Program 2 includes some adult language and situations. It also features artists pushing the boundaries of their art. "Pieces," the above-mentioned opener, merges distorted sound, feedback, and robotic recitations with puppetry that explores the limits and confines of life. It can be a heavy work, especially on the sound front, which got under my skin--and I've spent plenty of time listening to the likes of Current 93 and Throbbing Gristle--but the stark imagery offers plenty of rewards. The four creators, Amber Davis, Ali Fitzpatrick, Dan Dukich, and Gary DuBreuil, create work that is difficult to describe but ultimately reaches deep.

David Commander's "In Flight" also offered commentary on modern society, taking shots at consumer culture, celebrity obsession, and mindless talk shows. The New York artist managed to keep any potential shrillness at bay with his style--the puppets were mainly repurposed toys--and his joyful performance. Commander was a whirling dervish on stage, manipulating multiple sets and cameras, while providing all of the voices for a piece that was broadcast live on screen for the audience.

Michael Montenegro focused his work on the puppetry craft, bringing a marionette of "The Old Chilean, Saldania" to life in the first act and then manipulating a string of absurdist creations in "The Departure Arrives."

Other pieces gave a silent film by way of shadow hand puppets from Liz Schacterle; a knotty, Lou-Reed-sampling work by Open Eye's Michael Sommers; and a jilted ex-lover's sing-along, "The Gobbling Song" from Billy Mullaney.

'Toy Theatre After Dark' delights with inventiveness
Heirarchiy of a Box by Irve Dell

The show ends with the absurdist (and sort of stinky) "Sardine Circus" by Dolly Wagglers (Lindsay McCaw and Adam Cook), where a can of the fish comes to life for death, with stunts for all to enjoy.

Toy Theatre After Dark is more than a showcase for talented artists working in a small scale; it's a window into the wonderful power of puppetry, to create characters, stories and life out of blocks of wood, pieces of cloth, and even just your hand.

Toy Theatre After Dark runs through March 20 at Open Eye Figure Theatre.

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