By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The centuries-old global art of shadow puppetry has been given a little light by three estimable Dallas theater talents: director Lisa Lee Schmidt, producer-puppeteer Laurel Hoitsma, and designer-performer Dalton James. Working under a loose, newly founded stage entity known as Xlthlx Productions, the trio has found a unique storybook solution to the adaptation of fanciful Italian short story master Italo Calvino's The Distance of the Moon.While frequent Undermain actor Bob Erwin reads aloud from the book, sometimes with text in hand and sometimes not, six puppeteers (including Hoitsma and fellow Undermain alums Kateri Cale and Rhonda Boutte) operate the rod puppets. Dalton James has designed and constructed the flat characters with clear, colored segments, they're shot through with light and projected on the wall, and the effect (or so they hope) is of stained glass figures come to life. "Laurel and I are excited about this stage in our theatrical lives," says Lisa Schmidt, who directs Bob Erwin and a live cello accompanist and helps block the puppets. "This is brand new for us. Puppetry is a very difficult theatrical form, because it requires so much work from the audience. They have to be willing to imbue their own emotions into these flat creations. So if it does work, it's more personal."
Schmidt directed James to some very specific art historical influences that eventually found their way into the design--Picasso, Modigliani, and images of Ukrainian Catholic saints. She also consulted with Mary McClune, a University of Dallas staff member Schmidt describes as "a fabulous puppet maker," and actor-writer David Goodwin, whose shadow designs for Our Endeavors' Gorey Stories impressed her. (She discovered that Goodwin was a bit of a prodigy in the field, Gorey Stories being his first foray into shadow puppetry: "He said, 'Here's all the stuff I got from the downtown library.'") Her epiphany to take this new direction came, though, from a New York visit to the Henson Puppet Festival, where a conversation with late Muppet master Jim Henson's daughter Cheryl inspired her. She concedes that for Xlthlx Productions' first foray into the art form, they stayed with one of its simplest incarnations.
"This is not about creating a full-fledged puppet show," she says. "Their arms move, but other than that, the puppets remain fairly still. We wanted to create a series of pictures and images to complement the words." Schmidt read Italo Calvino's The Distance of the Moon years ago and has always kept it in the back of her mind, toying with different stage approaches. The story concerns three characters in love with people who don't return their affection, and is set in a mythical time when the earth and the moon were so close together, people sailed ships between the two to obtain lunar cheese, an expensive delicacy. Schmidt is aware that their presentation of the piece is a "strange hybrid," and it's easier for her to say what the show isn't than what it is--not a staged reading, not a puppet show, not quite a play. Add another negation to that list: It's definitely not for kids. Schmidt and Hoitsma discovered that when they started bandying the word "puppet" about, people automatically assumed they were mounting a children's theater production.
"There's nothing offensive in it," she hastens to add. "But I just think kids would be bored. You have to be an adult who's experienced unrequited love to appreciate it."