Up until very recently, my exposure to puppets was mostly limited to preschool years spent immersed in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe (rest in peace, Mr. Rogers). This gave me the mistaken impression that puppets are for kids. After seeing Harry Potter in IMAX 3D, how much “wow” factor can a puppet show have, right? In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre is quickly turning me around. They’re the folks behind many of the fantastic puppets and masks at the annual MayDay Festival in and around Powderhorn Park, and also host shows and classes year-round for children and adults alike.
This month the South Minneapolis theater company gives us La Befana, a puppet show based on the old Italian folk legend of a lonely woman who goes in search of the Holy Child. While many on-stage dramas can feel like a frozen slice out of time, everything about La Befana brims with fecundity. It brings a welcome jolt of energy during what can feel like the deadest time of year.
|la befana, presented through december 30 at in the heart of the beast puppet and mask theatre. for tickets ($22 adult, $15 child) and information, see hobt.org.
As I made my way to a seat near the front of the theater (shows at HOTB are general admission), I was surprised by how many parents with small children were in the audience for a weekend night show. It immediately reminded me of my own parents taking me to the theater as a child, and how tradition springs out of these special moments between generations.
The show is captivating from the very start, for both the younger and older members of the audience. Narrator Maren Ward (an artistic director of Bedlam Theatre) tells the story and voices La Befana, who is represented at times by a masked adult, and at other times by one of about half a dozen puppets of various sizes and designs. The story moved seamlessly across scale and throughout various locations in the theater, to provide a narrative of La Befana’s quest to find the Holy Child. The larger-than-life wise men who glided down the aisles were a magnificent site; so too were the miniature puppets with limbs nimbly controlled by eight puppeteers. Some of the puppets have been in HOTB’s repertoire for decades; others were crafted just for this production.
The mixture of new and old extends beyond the puppets to the story itself. La Befana, like other folk dramas, has been transmitted and amended over the course of many years, taking on a fresh interpretation in each new community and time that it is performed, while still maintaining fundamental themes. There were moments in this production that certainly didn’t happen in iterations 50 or 200 years ago: like when La Befana asks a teen boy of our century where the Holy Child is, and he offers to Google Map it for her. But the themes of longing, hope, and search for redemption were surely in place from this story’s genesis, and resonate even as circumstances change.
Audience members’ ears are treated to a similarly whimsical experience as their eyes, with a set of three musicians providing musical accompaniment throughout the show. I was continually surprised and impressed by the number of instruments they would pull out, both to imbue the show with a traditional Italian flavor and add some comedic sound affects to what the puppets were doing.
My attention was held throughout the entire 90 minutes, and I was impressed by how quietly captivated even the youngest children remained during the course of the show. At the end we were treated to snacks and a drink in the lobby, before making our way home through the snowstorm. If all of HOTB’s shows are this heartwarming, energetic, and visually stimulating, I foresee my opinion of puppet shows as a legitimate form of entertainment for adults only improving.
|This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.