Passing the Glove
Last weekend at the Ko Festival of Performance, Shoshana Bass, daughter of master puppeteer Eric Bass, took possession of her father’s signature show and made it her own, interweaving it with autobiography and reflections on that most magical of performing arts. It is the first puppet show she remembers, one that was performed just for her by her parents, using the place settings on a restaurant tabletop: a battle of silverware ending with a spilled salt shaker.
The image of free-running salt, and later white sand, flows through When I Put on Your Glove. It’s a memory piece that expertly and movingly incorporates the four mini-fables from her father’s Autumn Portraits, a longstanding staple of the repertory at Sandglass Theater, the Putney, Vermont–based but internationally acclaimed puppet troupe founded by Shoshana’s parents.
The exquisite vignettes – mysterious, melancholy, ironic – are stitched together with memories of her childhood, often on the road with the Sandglass company – “a life of waiting,” she explains, when her closest companions were the puppets, since everyone else was a grown-up. Her reminiscences are accompanied by a small, almost embryonic wooden puppet, little more than a round head and bubble nose with a wisp of a dress. This stand-in for little Shoshana investigates her father’s much taller puppets, each of them suffused with lively detail – as are the stories themselves.
There is a funny/sad sequence in which a puppet tries in vain to repeat the puppeteer’s sleight-of-hand trick, a mythic folktale with echoes of Native American tradition, a parable of a mystic invoking his inner demon only to be effaced by it, and a witty portrait of an old Jewish shoemaker haggling with the angel of death. A fifth Autumn Portraits episode is represented by a film of Eric Bass’s performance of it, projected onto a shimmering cascade of sand.
Shoshana’s enactment of her inheritance is technically and artistically assured, a faithful replica that honors the original while placing the young performer’s own creative stamp on it. The show as a whole is a kind of coming-of-age, as the daughter comes into her own as an artist and as the father, rather than simply retiring the show and the handmade, love-made puppets, passes his glove to the next generation.
The generational theme continues at Ko’s venue on the Amherst College campus, with two cross-cultural movement-theater ensembles investigating themes of incarceration and “the school-to-prison pipeline.” This weekend, hip-hop dancer Sokeo Ros, a hit at last year’s festival, returns with the multigenerational Everett Company of Providence, Rhode Island, for The Freedom Project. That’s followed by Tenderness from the Performance Project’s First Generation ensemble of young artists representing six nationalities and performing in seven languages. Info and tickets at kofest.com.
Contact Chris Rohmann at email@example.com.
When I Put On Your Glove
Review by Wes Sanders
Shoshanna Bass Catches at the Sands of Time
The morning after the performances of When I Put On Your Glove, I asked a young woman how she like the show, and was surprised to hear her say that she thought Shoshanna Bass was mostly doing her father’s old show, Autumn Portraits. I was gob-smacked. You could as well say Stravinsky was just quoting Pergolesi in Pulcinella, and Shakespeare was just parroting Plutarch in Julius Caesar. I felt like telling her to read T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” but kept my mouth shut.
At one point in the show, Shoshanna says (in voiceover) “puppets are memories.” I’m not sure all puppets can be so called, but certainly the creatures in When/Glove fairly vibrate with memory: in the moments after the table-top fairy-tale, the figures from Autumn Portraits rest on their stands as if in a museum, while the delightfully unruly, insatiably curious sprite of a puppet with which the memoirist-puppeteer portrays herself as a child peeks about among them, free to touch them inquisitively, because they are another (rather odd) set of grandparents. From the start we are invited into two layers of memory––the cultural pasts from which Eric Bass’ original puppets emerge, and Shoshanna’s personal memories growing up on the road with her itinerant-performer parents. I was put in mind during the performance of the stories Buster Keaton told of being thrown into the orchestra-pit by his parents as part of the show (there was a mattress in the pit, but the audience did not know that).
In those parts of the show when Shoshanna is performing her father’s puppet-monologues, we see the apprentice demonstrating her mastery––the precision, timing and subtlety we are used to seeing in her father’s work. She is not just performing Autumn Portraits; she is showing us, in this her coming-out as a puppeteer, the rich, flexible voice with which she can convincingly portray male characters and charm us with her singing of a Hebrew lullaby. Her performance of the portraits, in other words, is the 3rd stage of her autobiography as an emerging artist, which begins with the irrepressible upside-down nose-dive of her childhood, legs spinning in mid-air, and progresses to the fall that ended her circus career.
In marked contrast to the Bunraku-like movement of the portraits, Shoshanna explodes from time to time into dance-movements, executed with skill, beauty and imagination. We feel her urgently striking out for self-determination in these intermittent bursts of dance, and get to see––as she struggles with the discipline of her father’s legacy(?) and her own confessed waywardness––some of the flamenco moves she has told us that a stage-manager taught her on the road.
I found the puppeteer-dancer’s own verbal language rich, often poetic and always thought-provoking. It did not wander off poetizing or philosophizing into its own orbit; it remained wedded, in its reflections, to the concrete terms of the memoir. “What animates a puppet is not the puppeteer,” she said, as her girl-puppet climbed the ladder to the sandglass / trapeze; “it is the memories of the audience that animates the puppet” (quoted from memory––it was not in the script I was sent). An overstatement, of course, but what a provocative and tantalizing idea!
How often do we get to see a meta-puppet show, a puppet-piece about puppetry, a deep take on the creative processes of our art, and their origins in the robust inner child that has survived every puppeteer’s actual childhood ––a show that probes the making of this art in ways that look both backward and forward at the same time: the older puppeteer disappears behind his/her puppet-table to make the puppet fully visible; the young puppeteer dances in the open space between the staging stations, portraying in her own body the journey she has willingly taken on. This gift from her dad which Shoshanna has taken possession of as a way to tell her own story––Portrait of the Puppeteer as a Young Woman—I received it as a gift in turn from her to us, her fellow-puppeteers, exploring for us her initiation into what Julie Taymor calls “this rare and mysterious art.”
Founding Artistic Director (retired), Underground Railway Theater
Director, URT History Project, Inc.
Author, Underground Railway Theater, Engine of Delight & Social Change (an ebook with videos)
Available in all digital formats as of 4 July 2017