Little wooden men

Actor-writer-director John Turturro's engaging, episodic, occasionally confusing look at the turn-of-the-century theater in New York, Illuminata, has all the sexual shenanigans of farce without the plot structure to give the accidents and assignations lasting impact. One image that will linger with me, however, makes its first appearance within the opening 10 minutes and reappears only for the closing credits: the travelling fool who peers mischievously through an opera glass lens and introduces us to the characters' exploits. It took me a couple of long minutes to realize that this sleek, pale, high-cheekboned creature wasn't a man, but a rod puppet, operated by master puppet theoretician and teacher Roman Paska. Those long seconds of eerie uncertainty, going back and forth in my mind trying to reconcile the softness of the face with its implacability, the sweeping grace of the arm movements with the rods barely concealed beneath, were the kind I hadn't experienced since marionettes first freaked me out as a kid.

And, by coincidence, this movie encounter whetted my appetite for an already planned trip to Le Theatre du Marionette in NorthPark Center. Operating for four years now at the mall, veteran puppeteer John Hardman has found a comfortable and supportive patron in Raymond Nasher for his year-round puppet performances. Hardman didn't require largesse from the Dallas art collector. He's already put three kids through college by puppeteering, most notably designing and working shows for the national Six Flags chain before it was bought out by the Warner Bros. studio, as well as extravaganzas at the State Fair of Texas (he is now preparing a show at the Hall of State for September and October).

Hardman, I also discovered, was responsible for a childhood trauma I experienced at Six Flags involving an escaped gorilla in one of his shows -- too long to explain, and not really necessary, since I was easily traumatized by much more innocuous things. I was happy to tread more kid-friendly territory in the 45-minute Beauty and the Beast, Le Theatre du Marionette's current show. Directed and co-puppeteered by Pegasus Theatre regular Raymond Banda, it was classically nerdy in the best sense. There was not a trace of the irony, pop-culture plundering, and cynicism that seem to be seeping into entertainment for younger children these days. Even more blessedly, there were no visible Disney fingerprints here, a corporate influence that tends to erase all history before its appearance a la Orwell. The 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds barely tittered during the show, and although my adult jadedness kept their experience unreachable to me, I did try to snatch some freak-out secondhand. Glancing into the faces of the kids who were able to concentrate completely on that marionette play as an alternate universe, I thought I detected that mixture of fascination and dread that comes when inanimate wooden objects suddenly take on human character.

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